It could be billed Jones v Luxon: The Ruff-up in Bluff.

There's little love lost between these two heavyweight contenders.

One is Shane Jones, the high powered New Zealand First Cabinet minister and outspoken critic of Air New Zealand.

The other is Christopher Luxon, the national carrier's outgoing chief executive and likely National Party political candidate.

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And both of them will share a two-hour flight tonight on Air New Zealand's inaugural Auckland to Invercargill service.

Sparks could fly.

The all-Economy Class air cabin which holds 170 seats provides no partitions to hide behind. It is set make things a little awkward for Jones and Luxon, who haven't always seen eye-to-eye about the airline's regional services.

Last year the Regional Development Minister turned to fighting talk when calling out the national carrier for putting profit ahead of regional "growth and connectivity". He accused Luxon of politicking to justify the cutting of loss-making regional routes, particularly the airline's decision to cut Kapiti services.

Though under majority government ownership, Luxon defended the company's right to operate as an independent profit-driven company, something he called a "success story" for New Zealand business.

At the time Jones told Luxon not to "poke your nose into the political boxing ring" unless he was "getting ready to resign" and step over the ropes to run for Parliament.

It seems that the Invercargill-Auckland route would be something of a concession from the outgoing airline chief executive. However, Jones may still get his boxing match.

Luxon, who is due to leave the top job at Air New Zealand on September 25, has been more than hinting at a move to politics.

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Shane Jones and Christopher Luxon. There's little love lost between these two heavyweight contenders. Photos / File
Shane Jones and Christopher Luxon. There's little love lost between these two heavyweight contenders. Photos / File

In the meantime, Jones has continued to take pot-shots at the airline for everything from its duty to regional infrastructure to its questionable taste in rap music safety videos.

The ongoing feud and trash talk could give the flight the atmosphere of a ringside meeting rather than the launch of a new air link and growth fund for Southland.

Tonight's flight is due to take off at 7.30pm, touching down about 9.30pm.

Sparks could fly: Luxon and Jones square up on opposite sides of the aisle of the Air NZ A320D to Invercargill. Photo / Thomas Bywater
Sparks could fly: Luxon and Jones square up on opposite sides of the aisle of the Air NZ A320D to Invercargill. Photo / Thomas Bywater

There was some fighting talk tonight ahead of the flight before the two men shared a good natured hongi.

Bumping into Luxon in a departure lounge, Jones mused: "I suppose this'll be as close as we'll get, before we meet in the arena."

Luxon responded: "I've been getting a lot of career advice lately, but I'll be looking forward to a break on the 25th."

Te Waka: Students of Te Wharekura O Arowhenua school greet passengers off the first Auckland flight with a haka. Photo / Thomas Bywater
Te Waka: Students of Te Wharekura O Arowhenua school greet passengers off the first Auckland flight with a haka. Photo / Thomas Bywater

The two-hour flight is the airline's longest ever regional leg but it was also seized on as an opportunity for Jones to announce his own "big vision" for the "small city at the bottom of the South Island".

Shortly before embarking on the first flight the Regional Development Minister announced a spending boost for what will be a $165m redevelopment for Invercargill city centre.

The first arrival of Air New Zealand's regular A320 service along with the announcement of the Provincial Growth Fund boost of $19.5 million was "a happy day for Invercargill and the wider Southland district" said Jones.

This new service, which will be flying 1700 seats a week between the cities, will provide a key link for the Minister's mission to "bring the heart back to Invercargill".

Disembarking passengers were greeted by a haka by the pupils from the Te Wharekura O Arowhenua School.

At Invercargill airport, Luxon told reporters that although it had been initially billed as a "trial service" strong prebookings had given the airline the confidence to move beyond this trial phase. "We're no longer in a trial. We are actually in a permanent service," he said.

"As of tonight we have almost 20,000 bookings. Two thirds of those are coming from this region. Southland is supporting the service."

Luxon described first arriving in Invercargill five years ago to discuss the service with regional stakeholders: "I said if they could build the demand and create the reasons to visit, we would bring the planes. And they've done exactly that."