Air New Zealand unveils 'Hobbit'-themed plane

Air New Zealand already has hobbits instructing passengers on how to fly safely. Now, you can see the creatures soaring over the Pacific and the Atlantic as well.

The airline has transformed a Boeing 777-300ER into a “flying billboard” for “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” the first installment in Peter Jackson’s series adapted from J.R.R. Tolkien’s book and a prequel to the blockbuster “Lord of the Rings” saga.

A “massive” decal inspired by the new movie covers the length of the plane, the largest graphic ever to be applied to an aircraft, said Jodi Williams, head of international marketing for Air New Zealand. It took about six days and 400 man hours to install the decal.

Air New Zealand unveiled its "Hobbit"-themed 777-300ER in Auckland last weekend.Today

The airline had been secretive about the exact design, revealing only that it worked with Jackson’s Weta Workshop to create the motif, which features imagery from the film. The world got its first glimpse of the aircraft on Saturday when it was unveiled in Auckland. The plane then headed to Los Angeles. The aircraft will fly primarily to L.A. and London.

Both markets are very important to Air New Zealand, which is hoping its partnership with the makers of “The Hobbit” will help attract visitors from North America and Europe.

“It puts us out there and creates more awareness. And it gives people more of a reason to actually select New Zealand to travel,” Williams said.

“It’s very challenging for Air New Zealand to get that brand presence and that awareness because we don’t have a significant marketing budget, so by actually working in partnership with a movie that’s shot in New Zealand and shows New Zealand, it makes perfect sense.”

The airline’s first “Hobbit”-themed effort – a special flight safety video that features all kinds of creatures from Middle Earth – is already a hit, with global media attention and more than 9 million views on YouTube since it was released on Halloween.

A “massive” decal inspired BY "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" covers the length of the plane, the largest graphic ever to be applied to an aircraft, said Jodi Williams, head of international marketing for Air New Zealand. Today

The production is the first movie-aligned safety video for Air New Zealand, although the airline is known for its fun and quirky lessons on how to stay safe at 35,000 feet. Past videos have featured hunky rugby players, flight attendants wearing only body paint, and exercise enthusiast Richard Simmons.

Air New Zealand also likes to experiment with the look of its aircraft, introducing several planes painted black from nose to tail in recent months.

But it is Tolkien’s fantasy that’s putting the self-proclaimed “airline of Middle Earth” in the spotlight right now.

Travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt said Air New Zealand's "Hobbit" efforts are the most impressive movie marketing tie-ins he’s seen any airline do.

“Short-term, this will probably benefit the movie more than the airline, at least as far as North American passengers are concerned,” said Harteveldt, co-founder of the Atmosphere Research Group.

“Long-term, this marketing tie-in should help Air New Zealand successfully increase interest in visiting the country among travelers.”

The airline’s biggest challenge is the physical distance between the U.S. and New Zealand, he added. Travelers often balk at such a long and expensive flight, but “Hobbit” fans inspired to book movie-related tours may be undaunted by those factors, Harteveldt said. New Zealand’s tourism industry is eager to repeat the boost in visitors it saw after the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

Wellington, New Zealand, will host the global premiere of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” on Nov. 28. The movie debuts in the U.S. on Dec. 14.