Air New Zealand’s pledge last week to review its long haul business and look at ‘alliance partner opportunities’ is an invitation to consider its minority equity in trans Tasman alliance partner Virgin Australia and the realignments taking place on the trans Pacific routes to the US.

Virgin Australia has a strong joint venture agreement with Delta Airlines, and Air New Zealand, as a Star Alliance carrier, relies to an extent on connections onto the United Airlines US network.

These respective US partners also have airliners in use or on order that could shake up the routes linking their networks to Virgin Australia and Air NZ.

Delta has Boeing 777-200LRs that could viably operate Sydney to Atlanta services non-stop (14,942 kilometres) with some payload/route issues to Australia because of an ETOPS unfriendly area between Tahiti and Mexico.

And United intends to inaugurate Boeing 787-8 services on the Houston-Auckland route (11,933 kilometres) as soon as it can introduce the Dreamliners originally ordered by Continental pre-merger with UA, which we hope means sometime before the end of 2012.

Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport is the world’s busiest by passengers and schedules, and intensively connected to the eastern cities of the continental US and Canada.

Houston is by location and United connections, a natural competitor to the American Airlines hub at Dallas Fort Worth that taxes the payload capabilities of the four times weekly but diversion prone Qantas 747-400ER services.

However, as a number of commentators have pointed out, that Qantas service could avoid those difficulties if it operated via Auckland, rather than fly back to Sydney via Brisbane, and sometimes Nadi or Noumea when headwinds or the closure of alternate airports forces a diversion like that of QF8 on Sunday.

Air New Zealand is also the launch customer for the Boeing 787-9, the second version of the Dreamliner, which Boeing says will carry more payload further than -8 version that United is proposing to operate between Houston and Auckland.

The NZ carrier has been told it will get its first 787-9 at the end of 2013 and its guidance is that it expects them in 2014, accompanied by a little bit of friction between itself and Boeing over repeated delays to the Dreamliner project, which received type certification last week and will see the first 787-8 delivered to All Nippon Airways by the end of this September.

Qantas also has 787-8s and -9s on order, however the -8s, apparently delayed until 2013, are for Jetstar, and the -9s, which have trans Pacific capabilities, are due sometime in 2014 or 2015.

This means that in terms of long haul lift Virgin Blue’s partner Delta, and Air New Zealand’s Star Alliance partner United have the drop on Qantas in terms of existing and pending airliners that can make hubs in Texas and further east work a lot better than its aging 747-400ERs can for between 3-4 years before it can respond with 787-9s.

Meanwhile both Virgin Australia and Air New Zealand have Boeing 777-300ERs in service to Los Angeles and provided they don’t need as many seats per flight as Qantas offers in its A380s, they give them highly efficient lift.

Qantas, Virgin Australia and Air New Zealand would all be looking at the cards each hold in terms of lift using their own or alliance partner airliners, and no doubt asking how they could be played at Houston, Dallas Fort Worth and Atlanta in order to gain a competitive advantage in the deep south and east of the continental US market.

And not just in terms of the next five years. Trans Pacific growth expectations while less than those for Asia mean that 787s and existing 777s may not be large enough to cope by the end of this decade, (especially so at SYD and LAX)  which in turn means that Boeing’s preliminary soundings about a 777-X, and Airbus indications of changes to its comparably sized A350-1000 project, and A380s with much more range or payload, all start to assume importance as the 2020s approach.

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