(First published in The Dominion Post, January 20.)
There’s something slightly creepy about Air New Zealand.
Our national carrier plays very successfully on its image as an airline that does things a bit differently from others. It’s the plucky little airline that could.
We’re supposed to see Air New Zealand as quirky – a bit “out there”. Its “brand” is encapsulated in those famous safety videos, which are cited as evidence of Air New Zealand’s sense of fun, and in its habit of changing its livery to cash in on whatever’s trending, whether it’s the Rugby World Cup or The Lord of the Rings.
Myself, I can’t stand those smug, gimmicky videos, but we’re expected to love them. It’s almost a requirement of citizenship. Air New Zealand has so carefully aligned itself with Brand New Zealand that it’s unpatriotic not to think it’s the coolest little airline on the planet.
But the flip side of the airline’s corporate persona is that it can be bossy, authoritarian and a bit anal. It’s the schizoid, bad-tempered clown that can turn nasty if you don’t laugh at its jokes.
Property investor Sir Bob Jones and broadcaster Gary McCormick have both fallen foul of the airline for not complying with what Jones trenchantly calls its infantile nanny-statism. Both were banished to the naughty corner.
Jones ended up buying his own plane. McCormick has been banned for two years, an extraordinary act of arrogant corporate bullying that he intends to challenge.
I banned myself from flying Air New Zealand if I could possibly avoid it after an experience several years ago when I was booked on an afternoon flight to Sydney. I had to catch a bus to Canberra and made sure I had hours to spare, because experience had taught me to expect delays.
So it turned out. As the afternoon wore on, I sat through countless announcements of delayed departure times. I can’t recall precisely what reason was given: “servicing requirements” or “engineering requirements” or one of those familiar bland excuses that airlines use to cover up their slackness.
At one stage we were grudgingly given vouchers for the airport café, the value of which seemed to have been fixed so as to ensure we couldn’t actually buy anything edible. Otherwise the airline’s ground staff were characteristically missing in action.
In the event, our flight arrived in Sydney several hours late. I missed the last bus by minutes and had to make hurried arrangements to spend the night in Sydney, at considerable inconvenience both to me and the people who were expecting me in Canberra.
But what lingers in my mind was what happened when it became obvious, halfway across the Tasman, that I was at risk of missing my connection.
I approached three flight attendants who were idly chatting at the front of the cabin. I wanted to ask if they happened to know where the bus pickup point was at Sydney Airport – a piece of information that might save me vital minutes – or, failing that, whether they could suggest any other way of getting to Canberra at that late hour.
As they saw me approach, their conversation ceased and their demeanour changed. They looked at me with a mixture of alarm and suspicion. A passenger, doubtless wanting something ... a problem, in other words.
When the most senior of the attendants opened her mouth to speak to me, it wasn’t to ask how she could help. It was to reprimand me, in headmistressy tones, for stepping across a line on the floor of the cabin beyond which passengers weren’t permitted. It seems I could have been a hijacker trying to get into the cockpit.
She had all the charm of an SS concentration camp guard. Needless to say I hadn’t noticed the line on the floor (who would?) and had no idea I had suddenly become a security risk. No matter. Rules are rules, and I had to be put in my place.
It was one of those moments when you’re so taken aback that you don’t think of an appropriately witty response until much later. (The French have a term for this: l’esprit d’escalier.) But I proceeded to seek the flight attendants’ advice anyway.
They not only couldn’t help me, but showed no interest in doing so. In fact they reacted as if it was downright impertinent of me to interrupt their chatter, although it was their airline that had caused my predicament.
Such things stick in your mind for years. It became my defining Air New Zealand moment, even superseding the memorable time my luggage – and that of most other passengers – was removed from an Air New Zealand flight to Tonga without our knowledge because the plane was overweight. The pilot casually informed us of this only when we were halfway to our destination.
Everyone has their negative airline stories, but almost all of mine involve Air New Zealand. It's an airline that does a lot of things well, but it often appears unwilling to accept responsibility for the inconvenience it creates for passengers when it fouls things up.
That’s how McCormick fell out with the airline. He had been stuffed around by flight delays and decided that the least Air New Zealand could do was allow him a glass of wine in the Koru Club as a quid pro quo, even though he wasn’t a member.
I understand his exasperation, but that's not the way things work with Air New Zealand. It determines the rules, and unfortunately they don't include anything about getting passengers to their destinations on time or recompensing them if it fails to do so.
In Jones’ case, the circumstances were different. His argument with the airline arose from a flight attendant’s by-the-rulebook insistence that he read the instructions for passengers travelling in the emergency row, though he says he’d flown in the same seat countless times before.
Reading Jones’ description of the hatchet-faced flight attendant who marched off to report him to the captain, I couldn’t help wondering whether it was the same woman I’d encountered on my flight to Sydney. Certainly it sounded as if she had the same schoolmarm-ish demeanour.
Now here’s the thing. People will say that aviation safety requires that instructions be obeyed. But Air New Zealand’s preoccupation with enforcing the rules, and punishing rebellious souls like McCormick and Jones, would be more tolerable if it were matched by concern for passengers whose travel is disrupted by the airline’s own failings. But it isn’t.
The airline insists on passengers complying with instructions, but often fails to fulfil its reciprocal obligations toward them. You're at their mercy.
It’s a lop-sided relationship in which one party expects passengers to meekly do as they’re told, but doesn’t always keep its side of the bargain – and incurs no penalty for failing to do so. There’s no naughty corner for unaccountable, anonymous airline employees when planes run late or are cancelled.