Air New Zealand Boeing 777-300 ZK-OKQ rescued from the desert, returning to service

It was only six months ago that the fate of Air New Zealand's Boeing 777-300s were sealed, they were to be "phased out" of the airline's fleet.

However, right now over the skies of Tāmaki Makaurau after almost 600 days on the ground, the 777-300 is flying once more.

In the airline's 2021 financial results, the airline confirmed the 777-300 would follow its sister aircraft the Boeing 777-200 to the desert for retirement.

But positive forecasting about post-pandemic travel has seen the aircraft with registration ZK-OKQ brought back into the fleet.

It's conducting a special test flight around Auckland on Tuesday after taking off just after 1pm.

The aircraft last flew on June 20, 2020 between Melbourne and Auckland before being grounded amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

It has spent the last four weeks getting a maintenance makeover in Auckland to bring it back into service and will now be used once again to fly New Zealanders around the world.

The aircraft will initially fly cargo-only services between New Zealand, Australia, and Los Angeles, carrying fresh New Zealand produce including salmon, lamb and seafood, as well as pharmaceutical and e-commerce goods. 

Air NZ Chief Operational Integrity and Safety Officer Captain David Morgan was at Auckland International Airport on Tuesday and told Newshub the return of the airline's first 777 is a sign the tides are turning.

"After the past 24 months of predominantly operating a domestic business, seeing our iconic 777 back in action will be an emotional moment for many Air New Zealanders. This particular 777 was the first in our fleet so it's fitting that it once again flies the Koru in our skies," Morgan said.

"It's a positive sign there is light at the end of the tunnel, and while it's only flying cargo to begin with, we are hopeful that as the border restrictions continue to ease, we will be welcoming customers back on board soon.

"Our cargo business is right in the middle of its busiest season with New Zealand products in high demand around the globe so this extra 40 tonnes of belly space is a much-needed boost for New Zealand exporters."

ZK-OKQ will be operating its first service cargo on February 10 between Auckland and Melbourne. 

As for whether there may be more aircraft rescued from the desert, Air NZ says it will be keeping a close eye on international demand and, when appropriate, will bring back further B777-300s into service. 

Today's ZK-OKQ flight can be tracked online.