How Peter Jackson and His Hobbits are Filling Seats on Air New Zealand Flights

Airlines has seen an uptick in bookings after the release of each film in the 'Lord of the Rings' and 'Hobbit' trilogies

They may be small, but J.R.R. Tolkien’s hobbits are big business for Air New Zealand.

The carrier has been the so-called “official airline of Middle-earth” since Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” trilogies started their journey into theaters in 2001.

That doesn’t come as much of a surprise. The small nation with 4.5 million people has rallied around the fantasy films, using their picturesque locations and characters as a way to attract tourists to the country, as well as more movies to shoot in the tax-friendly region.

Yet film tie-ins can be hit and miss for most airlines.

While studios benefit from the exposure carriers can give their movies by turning planes into airborne billboards and putting trailers in front of audiences with nowhere else to go, converting a co-promotion into actual airline ticket sales has been rather tough.

Not so for Air New Zealand.

The airline has seen a spike in ticket sales of around 10% every time one of Jackson’s films has been released, Air New Zealand CEO Christopher Luxon told Variety.

The films also have encouraged more people to travel to New Zealand, with online bookings up another 10% to 15% to the region this year alone since the release of the first installment of “The Hobbit,” according to Chris Tremain, New Zealand’s associate minister of tourism. The success of the franchise has particularly helped increase visits from the U.S., one of the country’s strongest growing markets, representing nearly 19% of its tourism traffic this year. Given that Air New Zealand is the country’s main carrier, most tourists wind up on the airline.

In a recent study, New Zealand found that 8.5% of visitors cited “The Hobbit” as a reason for traveling to the country, with roughly 14% then traveling to a “Hobbit”-themed attraction in the nation. The tourism board and the airline promoted the country in a six-minute video that was available as an extra feature on the Blu-ray and DVD release of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.”

“The films have helped transition from fantasy to the real life New Zealand,” Tremain said.

“Our reputation has historically been about food and great wine,” he added. “But we’re an innovative bunch as well,” noting film and post production in the region.

Air New Zealand unveiled its latest effort to support “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” on Monday, landing a Boeing 777-300 jet at Los Angeles International Airport with the title’s dragon stretched out along both sides.

The image of the beast, voiced in the film by Benedict Cumberbatch, was the first time the creature was shown off entirely before the film’s premiere at the Dolby Theatre later that evening.

Only a quick glimpse of his head or eye had been previously seen in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” and trailers and other marketing materials for the sequel.

On the plane, Smaug appears as a 177-foot sticker on the sides of the aircraft, with the film’s title and designation of Air New Zealand as the “official airline of Middle-earth.” It took 433 hours to apply the decal.

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Air New Zealand has plastered scenes and characters from the films on its planes in the past, but it spent months negotiating to use the dragon on its jet ahead of the film’s official release.

Jackson, who was present at the LAX unveiling, agreed to let the airline take Smaug to the skies when he saw how the promotion would be an ideal way to show off the creature’s ability to fly.

“Peter always described Smaug as being the length of two 747s so this was fitting,” said “The Hobbit” films’ production designer Dan Hennah.

“For our partners to allow Air New Zealand to reveal their star exclusively to the world ahead of the movie premiere and theatrical release in ten days is a huge privilege,” Luxon said.

Weta Digital, which is handling the visual effects sequences for “The Hobbit” trilogy, designed the graphic of Smaug for Air New Zealand to use, keeping in mind the plane’s windows, doors and wing shape, which proved challenging.

Another “Hobbit”-themed Air New Zealand plane, launched around the first installment last year, continues to fly the Auckland-Los Angeles-London route.

“The first Air New Zealand aircraft features various characters from ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’ and it’s extremely impressive, but I think Smaug running the entire length of the aircraft is even more awe-inspiring,” Jackson said.

The image of Smaug, which will remain on the plane for a year, isn’t the only tie-in to “The Hobbit” sequel for Air New Zealand.

On flights, amenity kits feature “Hobbit”-themed eye masks and socks, while ground crew members wear vests that say “Dragon Handler” and “Elf and Safety.” The Auckland airport also has been themed the “Orcland” Airport to welcome travelers with Weta Workshop-designed installations of characters from the film, while the Wellington airport now featuring two massive eagles, one carrying Gandalf the wizard, in its main terminal.

Air New Zealand also has produced “Just Another Day in Middle-earth,” a new video which features its staff, that has been viewed nearly 2 million times in two weeks.

And last year, it released an inflight safety video that has been viewed over 12 million times on YouTube. See both videos below.