Air New Zealand has been named in a prestigious industry publication as Airline of the Year and will give its 11,000 staff an extra day off as a reward.
Air Transport World said Air New Zealand was being recognised for its commitment to safety and operational performance and superb customer service that combined passenger-friendly IT systems with caring staff.
The judges also commended the airline for the way in which it has weathered one of the worst downturns in aviation history and its leadership role in the industry.
Air New Zealand chief executive Rob Fyfe said an extra day's leave this year was an appropriate way of celebrating the award within the airline.
"It's about our employees but also everyone else connected with Air New Zealand so let's give everyone a day to spend with their families. That's a humble way that we can give something to our people without big noting."
Prime Minister and Minister of Tourism John Key congratulated Air New Zealand on the award.
"This is a great honour but, then again, no great surprise to those of us who continually experience the service that our national airline delivers," he said.
Mr Key praised the airline's ingenuity and "commitment to a more environmentally responsible future", but said it was the staff who made the real difference.
The ATW award was determined by three judges with decades of experience, one from Australia and two from the United States and differ from the Skytrax awards which are voted on by passengers.
The ATW awards have been running since 1974 and this is the first time Air New Zealand has won the top prize.
"This is the Oscars, this is the one that everybody focuses on. This is the representation of what the industry thinks of itself," Fyfe said.
The award also vindicated the airline's emphasis on making the most of its Kiwi style.
"We operate this airline in a New Zealand way - we're not trying to emulate a Singapore Airlines or emulate a McDonald's. We're trying to go out there day in and day out and trying to be authentic Kiwis and give people a real genuine New Zealand experience."
Air New Zealand won an ATW Phoenix award in 2005 in recognition of its recovery following its near collapse in 2001 which required an $885 million taxpayer bailout.
"I think it's the best award Air New Zealand has won in its history. The challenge now is to stay here."
Fyfe said the arrival of new aircraft and unveiling of new long-haul aircraft interiors would make for a big year. Although business conditions were still difficult, there were signs they had turned the corner.
"We can see things improving. It's still going to be tough, the biggest issue we've got is the fuel price which is rocking around all over the place."
Bookings were also being made much later than they used to, reflecting lingering economic uncertainty.
For the year to June 30, 2009, Air New Zealand reported a 26 per cent fall in full-year normalised earnings before tax of $145 million, while bottom-line net profit was down 90 per cent to $21 million. Shares in Air New Zealand closed at $1.17 yesterday.