A "strange smoky smell'' forced a Jetstar crew to abort a Christchurch to Wellington service mid-flight this morning.

Passengers and flight staff reported the unsavoury odour about 20 minutes into the short flight on an Airbus A320 which took off at 7.30am.

It forced the pilot to tell travellers of the u-turn back to Christchurch International Airport.

Emergency services were at the airport to assist crash rescue authorities when it landed safely at 8.08am and firefighters rushed onboard.

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Passengers disembarked and were told an hour later that the next Jetstar flight to Wellington wouldn't be until 4pm.

Jetstar flight 5Q288CX was cancelled due to "engineering difficulties'' an airport announcement told passengers.

The low-cost airline apologised to its passengers and thanked them for their patience.

But as the disrupted travellers lined up to try and get alternative arrangements, patience was running low.

Wellington pastor Levi Marychurch, 28, flew to Christchurch on an Air New Zealand flight yesterday and went to church last night.

When the flight was turned around, the passengers let out an "audible sigh'', he said.

"Everyone's pretty ticked off - I'm ticked off,'' the pastor said.

"Five or six times out of 10 when I fly Jetstar something happens. It's very frustrating.

"And to be told the next flight isn't for seven hours is gutting. I'll probably pay extra for an Air New Zealand flight and wear the cost.''

Julian Tietjens, 42, was sitting at the rear of the plane and kept smelling a "strange, burning, dirty, smoky'' odour which came in waves.

"We came in really low and there were heaps of wobbles. I let out a cheer when we landed, but no-one else did. It got some laughs though,'' said the painter from Akaroa, on Banks Peninsula.

He said passengers were relatively calm, as were the flight staff, but he added they went "pretty quiet'' after the pilot turned the flight around.

"The pilot came on and said there's been a report of a strange odour which needs more investigation so we're turning around for Christchurch,'' Mr Tietjens said.

He was going back to his home city to catch up with family at the weekend.

The flight delays were going to cost him "almost a whole day with family'', he said.

A Jetstar spokesman said: "A morning domestic Jetstar flight from Christchurch to Wellington JQ 288 returned to Christchurch after crew noticed a strong smell in the cabin.

"As per normal operating procedure the airport was notified and operated their standby procedures.

"The aircraft landed safely and without incident.

"All passengers have disembarked and the airline is working with them to get them to their destination as quickly as possible.

"Engineers are inspecting the aircraft.''