Sichuan Airlines is giving New Zealand its first direct connection with southwest China this evening, when the inaugural flight of its new Chengdu-Auckland route lands in the New Zealand city at 1845 local time.

Operating thrice weekly on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, the new route is a non-stop 13-hour service – the longest direct flight in its network. Sichuan Airlines also flies to Australia, Europe, Canada and the US.

The Chinese carrier is deploying its A330-200 on the route, which includes 24 lie-flat seats in business class. According to the airline’s general manager for New Zealand, JC Shi, in-flight service notably includes authentic Sichuan food.

“Sichuan cuisine is one of China’s four big cuisines, therefore we are delighted to bring the Sichuan flavour into the cabin. Authentic dishes such as hot pot, firewood chicken and barrel fish will be sure to delight and awaken the senses of first time visitors on board,” said Shi.

Overall, the service is Auckland Airport’s seventh direct connection with a major Chinese city and is expected to add 81,000 seats a year between the two countries.

“Home to some 14.5 million people, Chengdu is one of western China’s most important economic centres and a key transportation hub. Therefore in addition to providing a unique cultural tourism opportunity for New Zealanders, this new route will open New Zealand to a broad new audience of Chinese travellers and support trade links between the two countries,” said Scott Tasker, Auckland Airport’s acting general manager – aeronautical commercial.

The new Sichuan Airlines route is the latest in a spate of new flights connecting Auckland with China over the past year. Back in November last year, Hong Kong Airlines launched its daily direct service to Auckland, meanwhile in December Tianjin Airlines began a new service connecting Auckland with Tianjin, while Hainan Airlines launched flights to the New Zealand city from Shenzhen.

Sichuan Airlines currently flies over 240 routes.