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Cheree Kinnear talks to Air New Zealand's Head of Aircraft Programmes Kerry Reeves about the exciting changes coming to their cabins. Video / Jed Bradley / NZ Herald / Air NZ
Air New Zealand is recruiting another 1100 staff to avoid the chaos suffered by some other airlines due to labour shortages.
The airline is building back to more than 10,000 staff — compared to 12,500
It is introducing a series of measures to attract workers. A bonus of up to $1400 is being paid to entice people to work for the airline’s airports division, where it is battling to find another 250 staff. Over the past year bonuses of $2400 have been paid to existing staff and incentive schemes for salary and unionised staff are being reintroduced.
The airline is also recruiting up to 700 cabin crew, primarily for its widebody international aircraft, 70 regional pilots and a further 100 people for its contact centre, where complex customer inquiries have pushed up wait times.
Air New Zealand chief people officer Nikki Dines said the airline was rebuilding at a carefully calibrated rate even though there was enough demand for more flights.
“The decision that we’ve made is that we will rebuild carefully. So rather than putting a whole lot of capacity on that we then have to cancel because we don’t have enough staff, we’re taking quite a cautious approach.”
Overseas, shortages of staff in airlines and airports have led to chaos, especially in the Northern Hemisphere summer holidays, as travel builds rapidly towards pre-pandemic levels. Thousands of flights put into the system have been cancelled even though passengers are paying high fares.
Dines said New Zealand’s lag behind he rest of the world in opening up had helped the airline’s response, although it had to react quickly to the announcement in March that the country would drop quarantine requirements for Australians from mid-April.
“It takes us about 12 weeks to really be able to restart the airline and obviously we didn’t get 12 weeks’ notice back in March; we got about four weeks’ notice the country was opening.”
The recruitment drive is nationwide. The biggest choke point at the moment is training.
“You can go out and recruit a bunch of people but then actually being able to put them through the system in terms of whether it’s pilots or cabin crew or contact centre, takes some time. The two big milestones for us are going into the July school holidays and making sure that we can increase capacity over that time. The next peak comes from October onwards.”
Unlike some workplaces, the airline was also building an additional buffer for sickness.
“We’re still seeing really high levels of sickness from Covid and the flu and other things. We’re just building quite a reasonable margin – we may have trainers who are out sick, then the whole system stalls.”
There were longer relief call lines to provide substitutes for crew or pilots who were sick, to ensure planes are kept flying.
She said on time performance (OTP) was looking good as there had been few cancellations.
Soon after the pandemic hit the airline in early 2020, job cuts came quickly and deeply. About 4000 staff were laid off or put on furlough as the airline was bleeding cash and struggling to stay afloat.
“We did what we thought we needed to do in the circumstances,” said Dines. “And this has been a guessing game for us the whole time.”
In December of 2020, the airline brought back more than 600 cabin crew to fly in the transtasman bubble but that only lasted a few months in the middle of 2021.
“We decided to keep those people on because we just didn’t know when borders would reopen. Although we kept them on with no flying to do for quite a period of time,” said Dines.
“We’re pleased now that we did that, because it’s enabling us to ramp up more quickly.”
Some people who had been paid redundancy had been hired back.
“That’s just how it works, that’s part of our contracts. It’s been part of what we offer for a very long time and that compensation is for them losing their role. For some people, it was only a very short period of time and they came back to us within a couple of months, and some people it’s been 18 months.”
Pay rates for some workers, especially those on lower wages, had gone up as much as 10 per cent over the past year as the airline competes in an increasingly tight labour market.
Staff travel was also a strong lure for staff, and had even more appeal now that the international network was expanding again.
The airline is also going through an organisational change to break down barriers between different work groups.
Air New Zealand was highly unionised, with 34 collective agreements, she said.
“They’ll [workers] come back if they’re in one of our unionised parts of the business, they come back into the collective agreement so that in some cases they’ll come back into the same role and same level and in other cases they haven’t.”
While pilots and engineers have mainly stayed with the airline, an estimated third of cabin crew who lost jobs during the pandemic have been lost to the industry. Dines said those in customer-facing roles could more easily take their skills elsewhere.
The union representing most flight attendants is E tū and when asked to rate Air NZ as an employer, its head of aviation, Savage, said all employers were assessed on whether they offer decent work.
“We look at their workers’ income levels, at the security and stability of the work on offer, and at the quality and safety of the work environment. We also look at their commitment to giving workers a real say at work,” he said.
While Air New Zealand led the way in terms of safety and the quality of the work environment, there were still parts of the company where the pay was low and the hours unreliable.
E tū and Air New Zealand are working to address concerns about low pay.
When the pandemic struck aviation, the union was critical of Air New Zealand because of the speed at which it rushed workers out the door during lockdown, said Savage.
”We all understood that the company had to downsize, but disagreed with how it was handled. We warned that it would decrease staff engagement and make it hard to hire staff when the time came to start rebuilding — especially with airport and cargo workers who all had transferable skills, and that has proven to be the case right now.
“E tū members have a vested interest in Air New Zealand becoming profitable again, but like all workers, they need decent, stable, and reliable work.”
The airline has revealed its plans for long haul cabins aimed at competing harder against rivals, and concedes that crew have done most of the heavy lifting to keep customers satisfied.
One feature of the revamp, the Skynest sleep pod in Economy where up to six passengers can sleep for several hours on long haul flights, has another union concerned.
Flight Attendants’ Association president Craig Featherby said the revamp was needed. “It’s a great product but they’ve just got to make sure they have the right crew complement on board for Skynest. If they execute that with the right crew complement, I think it’s a great idea.”
Dines said the new cabins were two years away and there would be deep discussions in the meantime.
“That’s part of what we’re doing now with bringing in these new ways of working … is making sure that the sales team and the customer experience team and the product team are working really closely with the people who are actually delivering the service or the product.”
Dines said that while airport workers in particular were hard to find, more cabin crew were available.
Pay for flight attendants varies depending on whether they work on domestic, transtasman or international flights.
Government data shows flight attendants usually earn between minimum wage and $45,000 a year and inflight service managers can earn up to $60,000.
Flight attendants also get meal, accommodation, uniform and grooming allowances of between $7000 and $12,000 a year, says careers.govt.nz.
While overseas airlines are also aggressively recruiting, with some such as Emirates offering tax-free salaries, Dines said the lure of working overseas wasn’t much of a barrier to finding staff.
“So far we haven’t met the same challenges that we are having in airports.”
When looking for staff, the airline first tries people on its “staying connected” register.
“We’ve got some good uptake from there. Now we’re going out into the wider job market.”
Jobs in the regions were harder to fill than in the main centres.
Dines said the airline was working on lifting its conversion rates. “When we bring people in for interviews, we want to obviously try to convert as many of those as possible.”
The airline’s customer base was diverse and the airline wanted that reflected in its workforce.
“Customer service is what we try to differentiate on so we want people that are passionate about customer service and about travel, who want to work in a really fast paced environment.”
The airline promotes some core values to prospective staff, including the ability to welcome customers as a friend, being “can-do”, being yourself and being passionate about representing and sharing Aotearoa.
Dines says “being yourself” is very important. “That kind of authenticity when people come to us and share their experience, whether it’s work experience or community experience makes people stand out.”
In corporate areas in particular, the ability to work collaboratively was the skill that the airline was looking for.
“Above all else it’s people that can work really well cross functionally.”
The airline is moving its corporate headquarters from The Hub in downtown Auckland to a leased property at Auckland Airport, just beside the runway apron and close to its engineering base.
Dines said the re-fitted building would help encourage the collaborative approach.
“The Hub is a traditional style of office. It’s not that great for kind of getting a great culture and energy going because it’s all quite compartmentalised.”
At the new office – a longer commute for some staff – there would be more flexible work arrangements. The work from home trend is the biggest workplace shift Dines has seen during the pandemic.
She’s been with Air New Zealand for more than nine years and has ridden the waves of rapid growth when fuel prices were low and travel was booming, to the trauma of it nearly stopping completely when the pandemic hit.
The rebuild provides a great opportunity.
“I think those of us who are here see it as a real privilege. This is the restart of the airline and is really attracting people who want to be part of rebuilding the airline and getting it back to better than it was.”
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