Air New Zealand will soon make a billion-dollar-plus call on its next wide-body plane, with three aircraft in the running to give it scope to open up new routes.
The airline is in the final stages of selecting new aircraft to replace its eight 777-200s and has been looking closely at a new version of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the recently rolled out Boeing 777X and the Airbus A350XWB.
While the new aircraft won't enter Air New Zealand's fleet until the 2023 financial year, a call is needed soon, to put in orders for engines and to finalise the configuration and design of new cabins as the airline moves to a whole new interior for long-range planes.
The airline last week announced it would push out delivery of two of the planes by four to five years, to defer capital spending as part of a cost cutting drive.
That means some of its 777-200s, already 13.4 years old on average, may have to keep working for longer.
The decision is due before June and could be as early as this month. It will help renew impetus for the airline, which this year has been forced to downgrade its profit outlook. It is still feeling the lingering impact of Rolls-Royce engine problems and is now looking to cut costs throughout its business.
It's quite possible the airline will stick with what it knows — the Boeing 787 Dreamliner — rather than opting for the yet-to-fly 777X or making the leap to a wide-body long-haul Airbus for the first time.
At list prices, eight new planes could cost between $3.3 billion and $4.5b, but airlines typically get discounts of up to 50 per cent depending on the size of the order.
A prototype 777X was rolled out at Boeing's Seattle plant on March 13 without the planned media fanfare, as the planemaker dealt with the crisis from the grounding of 737MAX planes around the world.
The -9 series of the 777X can carry more than 400 passengers while the longer range -8 seats about 50 fewer passengers but has an enormous reach of more than 16,100km. That would make new destinations such as New York, 14,200km away, and Sao Paulo (12,000km) achievable.
Airbus' A350 has several variants including an ultra-long-range version which the manufacturer says can fly close to 18,000km.
Air New Zealand has had Dreamliners in its fleet for the past five years and although many have been periodically grounded in the past 16 months by problems with Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 Package C engines, newer model planes have updated engines and the airline could also opt for General Electric to power new planes.
This week's revelation that newer model Trent engines are also suffering premature wear in Singapore Airlines' fleet will be another reason to switch from the long-running association with Rolls on its long-haul planes.
Both of the big engine makers have presented options to Air New Zealand as part of the selection process.
The airline's chief executive Christopher Luxon told the Herald on board the airline's inaugural flight to Chicago late last year that a differently configured Dreamliner could give the airline the scope to fly further.
Boeing had presented new options for the 787 which, aside from the engine issues, has been a highly successful plane for the airline and was "continuing to improve as a platform".
The airline has met the growing demand for premium and premium economy seats by reducing the number of economy seats by 50 and cutting overall capacity to 275 in its "Code 2" Dreamliners. Luxon says further reducing the overall number of seats would give the plane even more range, while catering for the growing number of high end leisure travellers.
And a recent CAPA Centre for Aviation report says ordering additional 787s would make the most sense as the 777-8X is too big and the A350 would result in Air New Zealand operating a third wide-body type — something which should be avoided given the airline's relatively small size and the number of new aircraft required.
"Air NZ may be including Airbus in the campaign to ensure a competitive bid from Boeing."
While its current 787-9 fleet is not able to make New York or Sao Paulo, Boeing is working on increasing the 787-9's maximum takeoff weight by around 10 per cent. The higher maximum takeoff weight variant should be available by 2022 and would improve the feasibility of the New York-Auckland flight and Sao Paulo-Auckland.
Qantas has already proven that Dreamliners have very long legs. In the first year of operating the 14,470km Perth-London service (the longest Dreamliner flight) with 236-seat 787-9s, there have been just four cancellations and the airline says the 94 per cent full planes were almost immediately profitable.
But planemakers love a long list of new customers for new aircraft so Boeing is still keen on pushing the new 777X, which has a wider cabin, larger windows than the 777s it would replace and with new engines and aerodynamic advances to its wings promises to be up to 20 per cent more efficient per seat.
Because of its enormous wingspan, the plane has folding wing tips to allow it to park at a great number of airport gates without the need for modification. Notably, the plane doesn't have the same new anti-stall system linked to the crash of two Boeing 737MAX planes in the past six months.
Boeing has been talking to Auckland Airport for the past two years about the suitability of its gates and runway in anticipation of the aircraft operating here, if not with Air New Zealand then with another carrier.
The A350 has been successfully introduced to fleets without problems — including battery fires and engine issues — that have flared in Dreamliners.
Airbus says the different manufacturing process of its carbon fibre fuselage allows it to keep weight down, reducing stress on engines and improving reliability. But despite that, and synergies with A320s in the Air NZ narrow-body fleet, a shopping trip to Toulouse for big planes looks least likely.
And there's a possible clue in the airline's business review update: a picture of a Dreamliner in the section about wide-body aircraft replacements.