Otago Daily Times

At the helm for Air NZ’s horror year


AUCKLAND: Dame Therese Walsh believes it is time for Air New Zealand to shift the dial.

The airline has been devastated by the impact of Covid19, but its chairwoman says there are growing grounds for optimism about the future. The latest positive sign is the resumption of passenger services from the Cook Islands, the first quarantine­free inbound flights in nearly a year.

In her first major media interview since the pandemic struck, Dame Therese says the airline remains ambitious to ‘‘regain its sparkle’’ after a disastrous 2020.

She speaks of the heartbreak she felt for staff during what was meant to be a year of celebratin­g the airline’s 80th birthday.

Dame Therese took over as chairwoman just over three months before the outbreak of what was then a mystery virus in China.

The emotional toll since then has been heavy for the seasoned director, who still finds it difficult to express how she felt about the pandemic wiping out decades of expansion at the airline and thousands of jobs.

‘‘I struggle to find the words,’’ she says. ‘‘Because saying it was difficult or challengin­g just doesn’t do it justice. It really has been quite devastatin­g and heartbreak­ing.’’

More than a third of the airline’s 12,500 workers have left or been laid off, its internatio­nal schedule now resembles that of the 1960s and its entire fleet of Boeing 777s has been mothballed.

Its number of internatio­nal flights fell from more than

30,000 in 2019 to under 10,000 in 2020. Despite a strong domestic recovery, the number of passengers carried by the airline overall dropped from 17.6 million in 2019 to 8.4 million last year.

Although some staff have been rehired, the scale of layoffs has been traumatic, Dame Therese said.

She felt that deeply when the country moved out of Level 4 lockdown last May and she was on one of the first flights from Wellington to Auckland.

She spoke to crew, some of whom were leaving while others were staying.

‘‘They were all deeply emotional and it has continued through to today. But particular­ly those first, probably three months, every time I was on a flight and I had that experience, what struck me was the dignity with which people carried themselves.’’

Nearly all the departing crew she talked to had the same message. ‘‘After sharing their stories they would say: ‘Do you know, what I want you to do is the best job possible to recover this airline and to get it into a really good place because I want to come back’.’’

Many of the remaining crew now face distrust from fellow Kiwis who are worried about them carrying Covid.

‘‘That’s been really hard for people to deal with and hard for me to know that people are having to deal with [the impact] on their personal lives,’’ Dame Therese said.

But just as Air New Zealand crew have mostly received support from travellers, and from each other, Dame Therese (49) has appreciate­d the backing of other business leaders.

Early in the crisis she spoke to exAir New Zealand chairmen and chief executives she knew to sound them out, but others in the business community have contacted her to offer support.

‘‘One of the things, at a kind of personal level has been a highlight, has been that the business community particular­ly has been so supportive . . . Everyone’s had their own challenges but I think Air New Zealand’s probably at the top of the list.’’

In more normal times, Air New Zealand’s turnover is split roughly in three: domestic, shorthaul internatio­nal and longhaul internatio­nal.

Domestic operations are cranking as Kiwis explore their country. Despite the absence of internatio­nal visitors, who typically fill 2030% of seats in this country, the airline is flying at close to 90% of prepandemi­c capacity.

‘‘The most amazing story is that the domestic network is number one in the world at the moment,’’ she said.

‘‘We’re flying around in a way that is not possible in other countries.’’

Cargo has been one of the bright spots, with the airline moving 55,000 tonnes of freight on more than 3300 flights last year as part of the Government’s subsidised scheme, which has been extended.

The Australian market is the big prize over the next 12 months. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said a twoway bubble could be operating from the end of March.

While dealing with fallout from Covid, the airline has been working on a new digital strategy to ease ‘‘pain points’’ in the journey for passengers, is revamping its loyalty scheme and reviewing domestic fares.

She says the airline has added a significan­t amount of capacity to make travel more accessible to more New Zealanders.

The virus and constantly changing rules imposed by government­s had made the already extremely complex job of operating an airline even more difficult.

But adapting after a year of constant change is getting easier.

‘‘I’m not saying it’s perfect and I’m not saying it’s easy, but I think there’s a little bit of muscle flex now having done it so many times.’’

The pandemic has helped the airline build in more flexibilit­y and capability to deal with Black Swan events, and she says it cannot remain on the defensive.

‘‘That’s where I would want to be — to have that unbridled ambition and sparkle to be really palpable.

‘‘Covid is not going to be the legacy of this organisati­on." — The New Zealand Herald

❛ saying it was difficult or challengin­g just doesn’t do it justice

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