The brand cult of Air New Zealand

Written By: - Date published: 7:00 pm, April 22nd, 2009 - 38 comments
Categories: employment - Tags:

As someone personally involved at the Air New Zealand cabin crew dispute I can tell you it’s been pretty nasty for everyone involved. But what it’s really brought home for everyone has been the seamless (and slightly creepy) way the airline has used its internal communications to reinforce the brand cult of Air New Zealand.

Don’t get me wrong, I know every large business runs internal PR, it’s part of getting their staff on side so they do their best for the business. But usually it’s no more than a staff newsletter and some hokey team-building once a year.

Air New Zealand takes it to a whole new level. The airline’s 11,000 staff who, like in some weird nation within a nation, are encouraged to think of themselves as “Air New Zealanders”, are emailed weekly CEO messages as well as good news stories about the company and media releases. They run regular training sessions with Orwellian titles like “realise your potential” in which staff are encouraged to identify themselves and their futures in terms of the Air New Zealand brand and they provide staff with a whole separate password coded online world called the korunet with its own forums and newsfeeds. A world that is heavily moderated and censored of course.

Staff are also encouraged to spend their spare time selling the brand to family and friends, to take part in company-organised charity events and to “share their New Zealand” with the company for outside PR purposes. Some of the staff I know have spent countless hours working for free at Air New Zealand events out of a strange mixture of loyalty, fear and ultimately hollow promises of getting ahead.

A large part of this strategy is the creation of Air New Zealand CEO Rob Fyfe as a benevolent messiah figure. He hardly ever gets involved in the airline’s constant industrial disputes and he works the occasional shift with staff to let “his people” know that they are “all Air New Zealanders”.

That’s all very well but what happens when “Air New Zealanders”, such as the Zeal 320 crew, decide to break the faith by asking to be treated equally with other “Air New Zealanders”?

Here’s an internal communication to all Air NZ staff in which Fyfe comments about the dispute:

I have found this week particularly challenging I love Air New Zealand, the brand, the people and what we mean to the country. Therefore, I have found it especially difficult to see the Zeal crew go to such lengths to project themselves as unprofessional, denigrate the uniform, our brand, the koru and the professional standards of the airline.

We want people to step on board our aircraft and have confidence in the crew who they are trusting to get them to their destination safely. Our passengers want to see professionalism, confidence and maturity, and people who are able to show leadership and display the characteristics I describe above in a time of crisis.

Yet some set out this week to destroy that confidence and unfortunately customer confidence is not something you can turn on and off like a tap. It is something that takes a long time to build, can be lost in a flash, and takes a long time to rebuild again. It upsets me that people can be so disrespectful of something that many of you have spent decades creating and I have certainly put my heart and soul into in my six years with Air New Zealand.

So we have been faced with some tough leadership choices this week. I have received emails from a number of you questioning why we are been so tolerant of this behaviour. Here is one such email;

‘Rob, you have had more than 10,000 people bust a gut to resurrect Air New Zealand from the ashes of the demise of Ansett. These people in Zeal are showing complete disrespect not only to these people but the generations they follow who worked tirelessly to build an airline that all New Zealanders can be proud of… Imagine what foreigners must think when they step on a plane this week!!! You and Bruce and the team must be thinking hard about whether the Zeal crew are really fit to be part of the culture you have built, especially when there are so many New Zealanders desperate to wear the uniform and represent the Koru with pride.’

Despite the behaviour of these Zeal crew I still believe that deep down they want to work on Air New Zealand services, want to do a good job and want to convey a professional image, but that the people behind these antics, have lost sight of the ‘bigger picture’.

When I read this I was reminded of the behaviour of Exclusive Brethren leaders encouraging church members to shun those they feel have lost the faith. In fact it seems more like a decree of excommunication than a CEO statement about a pay dispute.

It’s been noticable at the airport how it has had a similar effect, with some other Air New Zealand staff abusing their colleagues for betraying the brand. Ironically some of these staff are likely to have their jobs taken from them by cheaper Zeal employees if the company wins this dispute.

If this kind of deep-immersion, leader as messiah stuff was being undertaken for religious or political reasons it is likely Air New Zealand would be on some kind of security watchlist. But it’s not. It’s being done to make money. So instead we see Rob celebrated on the cover of North and South (whose parent company ACP also publish the Air NZ in flight magazine, KiaOra), winning PR awards and flying to China with Prime Minister John Key.

And we do see it because it’s all emailed to every staff member to constantly remind them of how great Air New Zealand is.

Disclaimer: The author of this guest post is involved in the industrial dispute at Zeal 320.

38 comments on “The brand cult of Air New Zealand”

  1. chris 1

    That ‘internal communication’ is SO well written, it could have come from someone in the AIR NZ PR/HR stable.
    What’s the bet that the writer will forever remain anonymous?

    Like spin-doctoring, the communication does not appear to address the the specific issues that the Zeal 320 people have raised, rather, it presents an adverse point of view and makes THAT the issue.

    Read “Toxic sludge is good for you” for a run-down on how the American PR industry works. I see similarities at work in this AirNZ saga.

    On the other side of the coin, we are talking about a business.
    If I sign the contract, then sticking to that contract cuts both ways.
    When the contract is up for renewal, THEN I can either re-negotiate or leave.
    While we Kiwis are rightfully concerned about ‘doing the right thing’, we cannot treat a business like a wallet of dosh.

    • Ever notice which industries are unionised? Those where the workers have a single employer (Corrections, Education, Health workers) or very few choices of employer (airlines in New Zealand, for example).

      If people are going to vest their time and energy – their lives – in a career, they most definitely WILL push back rather than walk away. Walk away to what?

      The free-flowing grains of salt of the wider competitive labour market rapidly become concrete when the employees have no – or very few – options about who they might work for.

      That’s just how it is.

      Zeal 320 staff are defending their interests just as the airline is defending what it sees as its interests. That’s what happens in such a situation. Better to address it with understanding then pretend it is something it isn’t.

  2. Those who’ve read my posts on other issues may be surprised to find I actually agree with at least some of this post. I had a recent experience – deliberately vague naturally – where I was closely associated with an ANZ manager.

    Whilst exceptionally normal in most respects, said manager demonstrated the religious zealotry (one of my better puns!) described above.

    Cult of personality included.

    Strange indeed.

    One comment in case some of you think I’m about to change over to the dark side … this issue puts Andrew Little in a collision course with his own future. At some stage, he’s got to realise as a potential MP and God/FSM forbid PM, he has a conflict of interest.

  3. keith 3

    Enough is enough! Rob Fyfe is a great leader of our nation’s airline!

  4. Bill 4

    Here’s a happy wee Fyfe ditty from the 30’s for you to be humming next time you get on board.

    http://www.slba.se/journaldigital/REEL_HISTORY/filmfonster_fyffes.htm

    And here is the man himself… sans suit

    http://www.fyffes.com/products/bananas/facts.htm

  5. Steve 5

    If the brand image of Air NZ is so important to them, why have the Zeal crew in the first place? Offer them Air NZ contracts as opposed to ‘contracting to Air NZ and getting shafted in the process?’

  6. Izzy 6

    Haha shot Keith 🙂

  7. Tom Semmens 7

    I know someone who worked for Air New Zealand for a while and said the same thing. As far as Fyfe is concerned, you are part of the religion or you are an enemy of the religion. He apparently conduct ongoing and energetic feuds with, for example, Auckland Airport (apparently he loaths them for things like making him build airport tax into ticket prices) as well as others. My contact tells me people regard Fyfe with exactly the words you used, fear of him and his informers and pride in doing their jobs.

  8. Ron Shaw 8

    ZEAL320 was set up to run the Freedom Air brand. Freedom was a no frills ‘nuts and cola’ airline operating out of provincial centres and was set up with lower paid staff, cheap to run Airbus 320s, no meal service etc.

    The EPMU members were happy to contract with ZEAL320 to fly on Freedom Air at the lower pay rates because it got them jobs at the same as Air NZ staff on the main contract were displaced by the lower paid ZEAL staff. When the Freedom brand was killed Air NZ continued to use the Freedom planes and staff to run short haul Airbus 320 services.

    From the point of view of the main airline’s staff ZEAL320 staff are scabs and are therefore undeserving of support.

    And just because Air NZ Management don’t see why they should break the current contract and give the ZEAL320 scabs an unearned pay rise doesn’t make them the bad guys.

    • Daveo 8.1

      That’s an interesting theory Ron but it doesn’t pan out. First of all the Zeal 320 workers only joined up with the EPMU last year – they were previously with FARSA along with all the other Air NZ flight attendants.

      The vast majority of Zeal 320 workers have also come on after Freedom Air folded. They accepted a job at Air New Zealand in good faith and in many cases only found out months later that they were being employed on significantly lower conditions than everyone else.

      Calling them scabs is a new one mate. I don’t see how it’s scabbinhg to unionise and fight to end the pay disparity that’s putting wage pressure on everyone else. Care to explain? Because that’s a pretty serious charge where I come from.

    • Bill 8.2

      Ron, you the guy who wrote the email that Bobby Banana used in his internal memo?

    • Relic 8.3

      Creep, duplicitous types such as you Ron should not be using workers terminology. This excellent guest post gives a chilling insight. I am going to email head creep Mr Fyfe, and would recommend contacting the labor start web site to add a few hundred more messages to mine. Last time I emailed him when some Service and Food staff were on the receiving end of some Air NZ “love’ I got an abusive email back from him written in the early hours of the morning. Put the pressure on I say, after all the taxpayer does fund this company.

    • BLiP 8.4

      Master Facilitator Positive Coaching Programme? Like fuck!

      Haha! Captcha: clammy normally – be like a Ron Shaw handshake.

    • Laura 8.5

      Ron Shaw, you have missed the mark and clearly have very little understanding of what is REALLY going on. Do your homework!

  9. outofbed 9

    splitter

  10. Daveo 10

    You’ve got to love google. Is this the same Ron Shaw who’s a “human change management” consultant for Great Project Outcomes?

    http://www.greatprojectoutcomes.com/content.aspx?id=124

    All that loose talk about scabs makes a lot of sense all of a sudden. Ron’s no union man, he’s a freelance HR hack for the boss class. And he has the cheek to denigrate these workers, spread lies about them and call them scabs.

    You have to wonder if he has the Air New Zealand account.

  11. BLiP 11

    What a toxic organisation where facts are dismissed and hate stirred up becauuse one section of the “population” has the temerity to request equal treatment

    Its like a microcosm of Aotearoa where the “Air New Zealanders” are the pakeha, the Zeal people are the Maori, and the senior management team is talk-back radio.

    It has tinctures of the 1990’s Social Welfare – oh, sorry, The Christine Rankin Church of WINZ. In addition to the sickly endemic PR, there were several rallies where she appeared on stage before adoring staff from a burst of smoke and lighting dressed ready to take on the universe. And this was a government department – under a National Government, though.

    I wonder if this whole thing is a sign of the times as government takes second place to business. Has anyone else noticed how “unformed” New Zealand is? It seems like every second person is wearing some sort of corporate issued piece of clothing these days.

  12. Stephen 12

    When I read this I was reminded of…the All Blacks branding of the last 5-10 years – I think that the next thing Fyfe will do will be to write an open letter to staff with ink that contains his own blood as a measure of his dedication to the brand.

  13. Rich 13

    You get the same sort of thing most big companies, as well. I think most people with a brain don’t buy into any of it. Mind you, Apple have even managed to extend the cult following to their customers.

    The staff and union just need to undermine stuff from within. We have all these laws that let the company prevent people withdrawing their labour, so they should do what BA staff did and all call in sick on a Friday afternoon. Or “forget” to swipe a passengers boarding pass, so they don’t show as boarded and the plane gets delayed.

    • Bill 13.1

      Or “forget’ to swipe a passengers boarding pass, so they don’t show as boarded and the plane gets delayed.

      Except that hits customers which is never a good strategy, especially if you are seeking their support.

      On the branding front, why not undermine it with a bit of popular culture?

      The company is led by a guy who, on both given and surname, is named after a banana fcs! ( couple of ‘pointer’ links on my previous comment)

      Surely something can be made of that; some traction developed?

      Fyfes banana website even has a kiddie interactive section where kids have drawn up new banana characters including ‘Greedy Banana’ and so on. Is it just me who finds the idea of using one corporate’s brand to undermine another appealing?

  14. Pierre 14

    Hi there,

    Well as Zeal employee here, I’m starting to wander who my boss is. I started in May last year, after applying online on the Air NZ website and doing my interview at the Air NZ head office in town… After a brain wash at the Air NZ training centre about the Air NZ branding, I did feel I was part of the “Air New Zealanders”. It’s only after several months that I started understanding the difference:

    I was actually part of a subsidiary company that was the result of the merging of Air NZ and Freedom Air. Problems started when Air NZ moved the aircrafts from our company into Air NZ… It was all a bit of a legal blur to me, until I realized the management team was on an Air NZ contract, the pilots just moved into Air NZ contracts and now the plains are not part of Zeal anymore… So we end up as a free electron around a mother company that want to keep us as is, as we are their cheapest labour!

    When Rob was challenged about releasing information about the mediations, he simply said “Well I can talk about it since I’m not their boss!”, that’s after giving us a lesson on leadership a couple weeks earlier… I then asked myself: well if he’s not taking any ownership on us… who’s our boss then?

    Our union (EPMU) did a survey and I listed with them my expenses that ended up being more than the average $1,100 I earn a fortnight! I am lucky to have the support of my family from overseas, but most of my colleagues end up having to take a second job to pay their bills and this fatigue state puts us all at risk.

    I have never been so continuously tired since I started this job, and I feel as if I have no private life anymore. The company just cancelled my two weeks leave. They previously approved it earlier this year and I planned a trip to the cook islands, where my partner is from. We are taking the mother with us as she wishes to retire there, and I would have been introduced to the extended family.

    Since industrial action started, Air NZ stopped our staff travel, so we had to book with Pacific Blue, as we cannot even afford flying our own airline!

    This is my part of the story, but I want to make people aware that what we are mostly concerned about is a parity on working conditions as well. Air NZ want to open our 10h minimum rest to any port. This would mean we would operate to Los Angeles, be parked for 10 hours in an hotel by the airport, and operate back to NZ straight after… A real nightmare!

    They want to cancel our staff meal and travel allowance as well. this means on a 10 to 15 hours day job, we would not have a proper meal, but left overs, if any, from what we served to the clients. And everyone knows how much petrol cost, especially if you are not living close to the airport…

    Now comparing our working conditions and salaries to staff that wear the same uniform as us, have their aircraft branded the same and provide the same service on the same routes, but for twice as much and more, and have a dry cleaning allowance on top… Do you understand now why we are not satisfied?

    As you clearly stated in your article, they want to open our working conditions so we can operate on any aircraft on any route (domestic or international), so yes they are trying to create an Air NZ version of Qantas’s Jet connect. The risk is all new hired person will be on our contract and all those years of improvement for better working conditions and salary will be lost. In a sense, we are fighting for the other Air New Zealanders to keep their privileges as well, knowing, sadly, that we’re never going to be treated as equals…

    • Indiana 14.1

      Sounds like you work a pretty stink company, whoever your boss is. What skill sets do you have and are there any other jobs in the market place you can transfer them to? Or is your passion to be a cabin crew? There are other airlines out there, and you can go global. By the way you describe suffering from fatigue, is this the best job for you? Perhaps a lesser stressful job is what you need? I’m not advocating that you should chuck your job in, its just the way you describe life is so miserable at Air NZ and that they are crap company to work for.

  15. Tom Semmens 15

    Pierre, great post! You would think equal pay for equal work was standard in the 21st century, but in the world of Air New Zealand it clearly isn’t. I recently flew to Sydney on an A320, and I was thrilled to see the staff protesting to passengers whilst maintaining a friendly and very professional service. I made sure they knew they had my support and once I explained to fellow passengers around me the nature of your claim, they were supportive to.

    Contrary to what Rob Fyfe thinks, most people are reasonable. Most people undertand the concept of fairness. Most people are NOT willing to be part of the corporate robot. They are more than that – they are thinking citizens and they value a lot of things a lot more than just the Air New Zealand brand. Values like equal pay for equal work, basic fairness and decency in dealing with staff and the justness of what you are trying to achieve. Fyfe might be able to get his mates in the corporate media to regurigate his press releases as “news” but your cause is just, and no amount of work by PR weasels will obscure that fact.

    You guys go for it!

  16. Charles 16

    I’m glad you used the word “cult.”. I worked at Telecom directories a few years ago and there is no better way to describe the way the CEO talked to us than “cultish.”

    His picture sat on the top of the intranet staring at his employees from their desk, communications were always shaped in “family loyalty ” terms and our conferences became painful dedications to our leader. The last one I went to involved over 400 employees beating drums for fifteen minutes chanting the words , “power, performance, pride” over and over again.

  17. Tripod 17

    There is no “team” of “Air New Zealanders”. What kind of team has one player earning $3.1m per annum while the others earn around $30k?

    They talk about people working for Air NZ for decades. That’s true, but they gladly push these people out the door if it suits them. Think of the groundstaff redundancies and pay cuts in the face of threatened outsourcing in 2007. Employees might be loyal to a company, but the reverse is never true, especially in the case of Air NZ. You could easily work for Air NZ for 30 years and earn less than Fyfe does in one year. That shows how much they value you.

    What I found interesting was Air NZ’s claim that other “Air New Zealanders” would be strike breaking. I don’t believe Air NZ employees can strikebreak, they’re not employed by Zeal 320 and they are separate employers.

    All power to the Zeal 320 workers and don’t give in to the divide and conquer tactics. They’re only attacking you so much because they’re scared. You’re not alone in your struggle.

  18. ieuan 18

    Excellent post and the comment from Pierre is very illuminating.

    This is exactly what the Standard does best, digging deeper on these sorts of issues than the MSM does.

    All I can say is I am glad I do not work for a Corporation, I don’t think I could handle all the ‘how great are we’ bullshit from the management.

  19. Tom 19

    Just to throw a thought out there:

    Everyone is moaning about the “cult” of Air NZ, but Zeal crew’s whole reason for industrial action and striking is that you want to be part of the cult……

    hmmmmm

    Why try so hard to be a part of something that you despise so much?

  20. Rich 20

    I do have a possible solution:

    AirNZ is currently majority owned by the people of New Zealand, although like many SOE managers, Rob Fyfe probably regards it as his personal property.

    It could be converted to a worker/customer co-op, half owned by the workers, half by everyone who’s flown on them in the year. Everyone has one share (no matter what their job status or the amount of flying they do). Any profits get distributed at the end of the year to the members, who elect the senior management.

    That would mean it would really be the workers and customers airline, rather than pretending to be.

    (Same applies to most of the SOEs and potentially, current private companies too).

  21. Chris 21

    I’m friends with a girl who works for Zeal, from what i’ve heard the protest and uniform switches were taken quite well by supportive customers.

    This is just counter-spin

  22. ropata 22

    I’ve worked for large corps in the past. The best ones have an empowered and properly remunerated staff. A positive company culture is important but if the executive ACTIONS do not match their platitudes & buzzwords it becomes toxic. For example lavish bonuses to top management while imposing wage freezes on the rank and file.

    This cultish tendency is a typical smokescreen for leadership that is abusing their position and screwing over their subordinates. It is a symptom of our deep social malaise: the monetization of every aspect of existence, including family life and the religious impulse.

    • Jo Botherer 22.1

      Hi Air NZers and other scum, I am the Forum webmistress and it is my job to shut down any negative comment or adverse views on the Korunet forum site called “Discuss Air New Zealand”. Its not a job I enjoy doing as it goes against my freedom of speech upbringing but as I am a lowly contractor it is more than my “jobsworth” to act against the wishes of the communication management above me. Danielle is my immediate boss and is also a contractor and above her is communictions and public relations manager Mike Tod who is only 14 years old going by his photo. I have been forced to censor Forum Post discussions and to report bad attitudes and undermining of company policies to the managers of staff members making these forum postings. The rules of the forums have been carefully written so that by discussing ANYTHING other than sports and hobbies can have you banned or reprimanded or dismissed. Infact like the Air NZ internet and email policies, the forum rules and my surveillance can be used to find dis-engaged staff, to behaviour modify them with reprimands and threats of losing their jobs. Information technology is another great resource to be used as an excuse to get rid of staff cheaply at a time of recession. I hate to do it but I don’t make the rules…Or maybe I do like the sense of power it gives me… to standover longserving loyal staff who are trying criticise, to make a point or ask questions or otherwise undermine the company directives and vision. I’ve only been here a few years but I have ultimate power to whip and beat staff who have far more vital jobs than mine…Bwaah ahh ahh aaaahhh!

  23. Jo Botherer 23

    What I never realised in this job is that there are many “Air New Zealanders” who do not have internet access or even a personal log on. How am I going to shed staff for alleged I.T. policy infringements (as opposed to paying redundancy) if half the staff don’t use IT in a personal sense? I must convince Mine Fuhrer to issue full internet capability to all staff, thereby they are all at risk of accusations of improper use of company facilities. We only allow them 15 mins per day of personal email surfing in break times only and Trademe fully banned. If anyone gets distracted by a call back to a work situation and accidently leave their internet running they are in my target! HaHaHa! They are putty in my hand!

    • Jo Botherer 23.1

      15 minutes internet but only 10 minute breaks. We can discipline the workers on two counts, if using the internet longer than 15 minutes becuase you forgot to shut it off before going back to work, and if thats the case then its obvious to us you had more than 10 mins for your break.

  24. Jo Botherer 24

    Getting back to the Zeal 320 dispute who here agrees its unfair to dress up a group of cabin crew who are paid 23% less in the same AirNZ uniforms, Aircraft owned and operated and registered by Air NZ. Maintained by AirNZ. Piloted by AirNZ crew. if only we had more time all the cabin crew should have been renegotiated to the lower pay rate, all crew to be Zeal. If you thinks its unfair I will not allow you to comment, Your right to free speech will be locked or deleted.

  25. ex airnz ground staff 25

    Im afraid that the mind games will continue from the management of Air nz. The emails to staff from Fyfe were very George Orwell all the time. I often thought that when I worked for the airline. It smacked of double-speak and big brother watching you. Any tall poppies or people who could think for themselves were often passed over for jobs that they were most capable of doing but the management saw them as a threat. All these types of people eventually left and indeed a notebook was found with every staff members name on it and a comment regarding their personalities and how they respond to criticism etc. This was a notebook that one of the middle management had been instructed to supply to the hub. Most disturbing. Fyfe is not someone I have any respect for. He tries to control his staff rather than lead them..

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