Air NZ mercy flight: 11 cabin crew volunteered – many lost their jobs

Many Air New Zealand flight attendants of the 11 who volunteered a year ago for the rescue mission to get stranded Kiwis out of Wuhan have lost their jobs.

The 11 were selected from dozens of Air New Zealand volunteers, and the head of aviation for theE tū union, Savage, said they had done a fantastic job.

“People can remember that moment when people were quite proud of the national airline and all the volunteers who really selflessly flew into Wuhan to extract New Zealanders.For nearly all of them to have lost their job demonstrates the scale of the change.”

Air New Zealand says five are still employed at the airline and one is on furlough.

At least one of five pilots who volunteered for the flight into the epicentre of the impending pandemic no longer works at the airline.

Air New Zealand chief executive Greg Foran today said those who put up their hands to fly into the unknown had done an awesome job. They had been celebrated within the airline and it was “heart wrenching” that they were among those to go in the waves of departures last year. The long haul cabin crew were one of the worst-affected groups, with E tū saying 85 per cent had gone from its 1600 members in that part of the airline.

Savage said the past year had been destabilising, unsettling and in some cases heartbreaking for many of the union’s aviation members, including crew from Virgin Australia, Qantas’ Jetconnect and other associated businesses such as airline catering companies.

At Air New Zealand, the scale and abruptness of job losses was “truly traumatising”.

“It was heartbreaking for many of our members; they’re really committed to the work that they do and they care about the work they do, not just for the airline, but they have a real profound sense that they’re serving New Zealand as well.”

Depending on what transferable skills they had, some had gone on and found other jobs relatively quickly but others remain unemployed.

“But the important thing for union members is that they had negotiated into their contracts good redundancy clauses. And a lot of them realised just how important those clauses really were.”

There was also a “huge sense of camaraderie and collectivity” around dealing with redundancies, and workers took pay cuts to save the jobs of their colleagues.

Savage said all aviation employers were caught unawares or unprepared for the pandemic, and they responded in different ways.

“Some employers were floundering, and the union had to step in and effectively advise them on how they were going to have to deal with their workforce because some of them, they were like deer frozen in the headlights.”

The union has been trenchant in its criticism of Air New Zealand at times, talking about an erosion of trust, but Savage said it was keen on rebuilding the relationship

”We definitely felt it could have been done better – it’s been a difficult and fractious relationship in the last year. But recently, with changes in management, we’ve started the rebuild process of talking to Air New Zealand about what the future holds and what we can do to improve things from here on in.”

Nikki Dines, who has been at the airline for eight years, is now chief people officer, replacing Joe McCollum whose one-year posting covered the time of the mass redundancies.

“I think it’s fair to say that all of the unions at Air New Zealand have respect for her approach and her integrity.”

Savage said he was encouraged by chief executive Greg Foran’s willingness to talk to unions. E tū members at the airline would meet over the next few weeks to discuss how they would like to see the relationship work as the airline adapts to the new environment.

“There was a lot of tension and conflict created in the last year and we want to move past that as best we can and do not only what is best for the employees of Air New Zealand, but also what is good for the country.”

It was a good time to review the broader approach to aviation and the airline business, which will be transformed as flying resumes.

”Because we’re a long way away from the rest of the world, in order for us to be successful as a country, we need not just a lot of tourists coming in, but we need a high standard and capable aviation industry.”

This included infrastructure and support networks, such as engineering and maintenance.

Savage said airlines needed to resist the “race to the bottom” of the low-cost airline model.

“We need an aviation sector that can stand up to these kinds of pressures and de-skilling. Lowering terms and conditions and decreasing standards is not going to lead to a better aviation sector and that’s not going to help New Zealand.”

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