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PAPEETE, Tahiti (Tahitipresse, Oct. 1) – Air New Zealand and Virgin Atlantic are preparing to operate the airline industry's first test flight of a commercial airliner partially powered by biofuel, according to two Internet news sources.

Both airlines are preparing to fly one engine of a four-engine commercial jet running partially or entirely on a biofuel. Virgin Atlantic's ground testing is well underway in the U.S., aiming for a biofuel flight early next year. Air New Zealand is looking at a test flight in late 2008 or early 2009, according to the Internet Web site for BBC News.

Air New Zealand plans to use a 747 aircraft, which is part of a deal signed by the airline, engine producer Rolls-Royce, and aircraft manufacturer Boeing. Virgin Atlantic has a partnership with engine producer General Electric and Boeing. A Virgin spokesman told the BBC that ground testing was well underway in the U.S.

Auckland Airport is mostly likely where the test flight will take off, said Air New Zealand, which operates two weekly Auckland-Papeete-Auckland flights.

The memorandum of understanding Air New Zealand signed with Rolls-Royce and Boeing is aimed at working towards ensuring the commercial aviation sector becomes more environmentally friendly, reported E-Travel Blackboard, an Internet tourism industry newsletter based in Australia.

But a Rolls-Royce spokeswoman told the BBC that being the first to fly with a biofuel-powered engine was not the point. "It's not particularly a race; that's not the objective. The objective is to gain a better understanding of the potential that biofuels might have for the future."

Rob Fyfe, Air New Zealand's chief executive, told the BBC that advances in technology had made biofuels a viable possibility for use in aviation sooner than anticipated.

The government of New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark recently announced an objective of becoming carbon neutral, and Climate Change and Energy Minister David Parker said Air New Zealand's initiative would help achieve that goal.

However, the Air New Zealand-Rolls-Royce-Boeing partnership provided no details of what type of biofuel would be used, but said the test flight would not carry passengers.

E-Travel Blackboard reported that Air New Zealand's planned flight would be conducted under strict safety conditions. The four 747 engines will not entirely depend on the biofuel for its test run. Instead, one engine will run on the blended biofuel/kerosene mix, and the other three engines will run on regular aviation fuel.

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