Shall we dance?

EVERETT – The Boeing Co. delivered its first 777 to a South Pacific airline on Thursday, even as it pursues a larger deal with the region’s biggest air carrier.

Australian airline Qantas is in the market for as many as 100 777s and 787s – a much larger number of the same combination ordered by Air New Zealand.

In a ceremony highlighted by native Maori dancing, Air New Zealand took possession of its first 777-200ER from Boeing. The new jet will become the cornerstone of its long-range international fleet, said Steven Udvar-Hazy, chief executive of International Lease Finance Corp., which is leasing the new jet to the airline.

“The 777 is the workhorse you’ll see at airports around the world in Air New Zealand colors,” Udvar-Hazy said. “I hope you make a lot of profit so you come back to us for more airplanes.”

In 2004, Air New Zealand became the first airline to order a combination of 777s and 787s from Boeing, placing an order for eight 777-200ERs and two 787-8s. On Tuesday, the airline announced it was doubling its 787 order. Boeing senior vice president for sales Larry Dickenson confirmed that at Thursday’s ceremony.

Boeing is touting the 777s and 787s as a winning combination for long-haul airlines. The models both have the range to cross the Pacific Ocean, Boeing said, and the 225-seat 787 and 300-seat 777 complement each other in passenger capacity.

Qantas is studying that combination, as well as Airbus’ competing A340s and A350s. Udvar-Hazy said his leasing company is working with both Boeing and the airline to potentially finance a deal.

Udvar-Hazy didn’t answer questions about the 787 – specifically he wouldn’t say whether his company is the unnamed buyer that earlier this month placed an order for 20 of Boeing’s newest jets.

But he praised Boeing’s 777 family of aircraft. Thursday’s Air New Zealand ceremony marked the 49th 777 International Lease Finance Corp. has acquired from Boeing. The 777 is clearly superior to the Airbus A340, he said, with a more passenger-friendly cabin, excellent range, better fuel economy, and good maintenance and operating characteristics.

“It’s just a more versatile aircraft,” he said.

Air New Zealand is a “relatively small airline on the world stage,” chief executive Rob Fyfe said at Thursday’s delivery ceremony. That made the decision to replace its aging 767s with new 777s and 787s “a very significant and challenging choice for us.”

Boeing “fought incredibly hard to win this deal,” Fyfe said.

The airline will take delivery of all eight 777s within the next 12 months, Fyfe said. Its 787s are set for delivery in 2010-11.

The new 777s are outfitted with amenities such as first-class seats that fold out into bunks and individual in-flight entertainment throughout the economy section. The airline’s first 777 will go into service between San Francisco and Auckland, New Zealand, late in November.

It will mark a new era for the airline, said flight attendant Andrew Baker, who led a group of fellow Air New Zealand cabin crew members in a native Maori dance and blessing for the plane.

The dance is “a real expression of life and passion,” Baker said. “It’s a new beginning for Air New Zealand. We’re trying to bring that to the airplane.”

Reporter Bryan Corliss: 425-339-3454 or corliss@heraldnet.com.

Elizabeth Armstrong / The Herald

An Air New Zealand flight attendant in traditional Maori dress guards the 777-200ER Boeing delivered to the airline Thursday in Everett.

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