Gin Wigmore and Kiwi travellers say 'howdy' to Texas after inaugural flight

Several big names, including a Kiwi music star, were on the inaugural flight from Auckland to Houston today as Air New Zealand opens up a new route to North America.

Kiwi singer-songwriter Gin Wigmore, who lives in Los Angeles, was on the flight.

"It's bigger than France. I saw that on a t-shirt once!" she laughed.

The airline has launched a service from Auckland to Houston. The very first Boeing-777 flight landed at 7.35am (NZT time). Passengers were welcomed with a haka on the tarmac, and greeted with a friendly "Howdy!" from ground staff.

Part of the welcoming party at Houston Airport. Source: 1 NEWS

Houston is a major tourism hub. It offers regular flight connections to New York in the east, and Louisiana and Miami in the south. Air New Zealand's 13-hour flight from Auckland will also connect passengers to Mexico and the Caribbean.

The new route through Houston, operating up to five times a week, allows Kiwi travellers to avoid the heavily congested Los Angeles International Airport.

On today's flight, the US ambassador to New Zealand, Mark Gilbert, tried to take a selfie with each of the 287 passengers on board.

"I know a lot of Kiwis travel to the West Coast of the US," he told ONE News. "But this will give them the opportunity to visit parts of the country they may not have seen."

Air NZ Texas Source: 1 NEWS

Passengers said they were travelling to Texas for a variety of reasons, including spending Christmas with friends and family, checking out theme parks, and visiting NASA's Johnson Space Centre. Many said they didn't quite know what to expect from the new destination, which is famous for its rodeos and ribs.

Air New Zealand is targeting American tourists too, according to CEO Christopher Luxon.

"There's 30 million Americans, believe it or not, who have New Zealand on their bucket list… We want to get them here before they die. We want them to choose to come to New Zealand, rather than going to Croatia, Mexico, Thailand or somewhere else," Mr Luxon said.

However, he  admits it may be tough to convince Americans to travel down under.

Air NZ Texas Source: 1 NEWS

"Many have a very poor sense of geography, travel times and distance. Some of them told us, in research, that it takes 41 hours of flying time to get to New Zealand!"

The new route represents a significant investment by the airline, including $350m of capital, $150m to run two aircraft each year and tens of millions on tourism promotion. Luxon says the flights need to be 80 percent full, if the service is to be profitable.

Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce was also on board, talking up the possibility of stronger business ties with Texas.

"Trade between Texas and New Zealand is worth around $500 million dollars," Mr Joyce told ONE News.

"Texas would be about the 12th largest economy in the world if it wasn't part of the United States. So it's big."

The Minister says while Houston is known for being a space exploration hub, the city is also a hive of activity in science, technology and medical research.

He wants to boost the number of American students who come to New Zealand to study.

Joyce says he won't sign up for NASA's astronaut programme while in Texas. He also insists he has no plans to buy a cowboy hat or boots, although his kids expect him to squeeze some Christmas shopping before he flies home.

Gin Wigmore, Steven Joyce and the US ambassador to New Zealand were among those present for the historic flight. Source: 1 NEWS