Eric Hundman, an assistant professor at the Shanghai campus of New York University, told the New Zealand Herald the flight had taken as scheduled just before midnight on Saturday night.
"NZ289 Auckland to Shanghai returned to Auckland around four and a half to five hours into its journey after it was discovered a technicality meant the particular aircraft operating this service did not have Chinese regulatory authority to land in China", it said in a statement Monday.
China's approach to Taiwan is well known, as is its strict approach to paperwork.
For weeks there have been rumours that officials at the Chinese Embassy have warned the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade that the trip is not happening until other issues are resolved, something Mfat denies.More news: South Korea signs deal to pay more for USA troops
The source indicated that the airline may not have taken the political stance or "cast a political lens" that the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAA) was wanting to see regarding Taiwan's status in the documentation.
The death on the Air New Zealand flight comes close to two months after a passenger also died on a Samoa Airways flight from Auckland to Samoa.
There is no doubt that the relationship is in a hard state, and many in media and foreign affairs circles are on the lookout for any sign that China is punishing New Zealand.
The same flight, NZ289, was turned back on a flight to China on Aug 24 a year ago, although an airline spokeswoman said that was due to an engineering issue, not a permitting one.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks to media during a cabinet meeting at Parliament in Wellington, New Zealand, January 29, 2019.More news: Kyler Murray is going all-in with football
The incident marks yet another arbitrary move by Beijing to impose its ideology upon foreign companies, following the CAA order on April 24 of a year ago that forced airlines to refer to Taiwan as part of China on their websites, which the U.S. White House called "Orwellian nonsense".
Air New Zealand did not immediately respond to a Stuff's request for comment.
Ardern is left trotting out the line that this is a scheduling issue, and the only thing keeping her from an official visit is scheduling clashes.
Subsequently New Zealand telco company Spark said it would not use the company as part of the 5G roll-out, although justice minister Andrew Little has stopped short of calling it a ban.
The approximate number of hours NZ289 was into its Auckland-to-Shanghai flight when it had to turn back.More news: Trump holds campaign rally in El Paso