The flight that touched down in Shanghai on Monday was a Boeing 787-9 with the registration ZK-NZH.
NYU Shanghai assistant professor Eric Hundman was on the diverted flight and tweeted about the experience.
He said Air New Zealand offered passengers a “gesture of goodwill” in the form of a $NZ200 ($190) voucher, in addition to paying for hotel rooms.
New Zealand’s Minister for Transport Phil Twyford said his staff told him of the diversion once the issue became public.
“Air New Zealand advised that they made an administrative error, and that was the reason the flight had to return to Auckland,” he said.
“Air New Zealand has acknowledged its mistake so it’s not necessary for me to take any action.”
New Zealand political journalist Richard Harman speculated on his website Politik that the rejection of flight NZ289 was China reacting to New Zealand’s decision to ban Chinese telco Huawei from supplying 5G to New Zealand telco Spark.
However, aviation commentator Irene King said the flight was most likely forced to turn back because there had been a “cock-up” with the paperwork at Air New Zealand’s end.
She said it was most likely the aircraft registration filed with the Chinese authorities was different from the registration of the aircraft that was used on the flight.
Air New Zealand did not respond to questions about the aircraft.
King said while it was highly unusual for aircraft to be diverted due to incorrect flight registrations, it was not unheard of.
Countries around the world were cautious about who was flying in their airspace, she said.
“The Chinese in particular are very protective of their airspace so you do have to be quite precise about the registration of your aircraft.”
In some circumstances it was possible for airlines to find a quick solution to an incorrect flight plan however, because the incident with flight NZ289 occurred over the weekend there was little chance of anyone within China’s bureaucracy who would have been able to make an amendment to allow the flight to land, she said.
“You have to go with what has been filed and there’s a process for amending the flight plan and obviously that process doesn’t work 24 hours, seven days a week.”
Air New Zealand flies direct from Auckland to Shanghai six times a week.