Aviation chief lives dream

Experience of flying as a young boy inspired the head of Hawaiian Airlines.

Mark Dunkerley studied at the London School of Economics where he did a masters degree in the economics of air transport. Photo / Supplied
Mark Dunkerley studied at the London School of Economics where he did a masters degree in the economics of air transport. Photo / Supplied

Mark Dunkerley is a natural airline boss.

The Hawaiian Airlines president and chief executive's love of aviation developed as a child frequently flying across the Atlantic from the United States to Britain and after he got his pilot's licence and became an accomplished aerobatics flier.

He has flown more than 30 different types of plane, ranging from tiny racing aircraft, a Spitfire, an F15 fighter, and the world's biggest airliner, the A380. But passengers won't see him at the controls of any of his own airline's planes.

"They can rest easy," he said in Auckland last week, just before Hawaiian's first New Zealand-bound service touched down.

Dunkerley was born in Bogota, Colombia, then moved to Ghana where his British parents were involved in development programmes before the family settled in Washington, DC.

From the age of seven he went to school in Britain.

"As a consequence of being packed off to boarding school I was exposed to aviation at a young age. Since I was a child I always had a fascination with flight and all things aviation so I'm truly blessed to be able to live out the dreams of my childhood."

He studied at the London School of Economics where he did a masters degree in the economics of air transport.

His first job was as an assistant to the chief executive of Miami Airport in 1986. Three years later he joined British Airways in Washington, DC, where he ran the government affairs office before being posted to Prague to get some hands-on operational experience.

"That started a string of good fortune. At the time when I went to Prague the Czech Republic was performing very badly for BA, we changed some things but most importantly the economy was coming right," Dunkerley said.

He was then given the job of managing all of Eastern Europe and by 1997 he was running all of Latin America and the Caribbean.

"A couple of times in a row I was quite fortunate to go into a situation just in time to see it get better," he said.

"As a consequence of that I started building by happenstance rather than design a reputation for being the company doctor who went into things that weren't working well."

He left two years later to run Worldwide Flight Services, a Dallas-based ground handling firm with a workforce of 10,000 - partly to gain experience managing large numbers of staff.

Around 18 months later he took a job where even his corporate medicine-man skills couldn't help.

He took a job at Belgium's Sabena airline, already in financial trouble, six weeks before 9/11. It joined a string of airline failures.

Just before he joined the Belgian airline he was approached by the doomed Ansett, but relief at not taking that job was soon replaced by the awful task of working with Sabena's receivers to dismantle the company.

Proving he was up for a challenge he then joined Hawaiian which was doing "very badly" and about to enter Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection for two years.

"We managed the airline through bankruptcy and it became the only airline to pay its creditors 100 cents in the dollar - most other US airlines essentially stiffed their creditors."

Hawaiian was able to rebuild by changing its ticket selling systems in the US and axing uneconomic mainland and interisland routes that had been kept running because of political considerations.

There was nothing fundamentally flawed about the business but it needed to get back to basics and in 2005 it was out of bankruptcy and able to chart its own course.

It has opened up new routes on the Pacific Rim, the Auckland service being the latest. It also bought new Airbus A330 planes from manufacturers instead of buying second-hand "from the desert" - mothballed aircraft from Mojave where Hawaiian had previously shopped.

During bankruptcy the airline did not cut employee benefits which paid dividends and it has engaged employees who have remained loyal.

Trust in frontline staff gave the board and management confidence to take commercial risks, he said.

"We know if we don't get it right our employees will do their utmost to make sure our customers don't bear the consequences. That allows us to be more adventurous."

He said he knows about two-thirds of the 5000 employees by name by getting out of head office and has worked with ground crews and as a flight attendant.

Hawaiian has 9.5 million passengers and it estimated they directly interact 11 times with airline staff during a flight, equating to more than 100 million "transactions" a year.

"Most of our employees work in an unsupervised environment so at the end of the day we have to foster an environment where employees have both the confidence and the tools and motivation to do the right thing," he said.

"All of the work we do in the boardroom is frankly secondary."

With the exception of one year, the airline has been in the black every year since 2005. Last year it made a profit of $63 million.

"I'm extremely fortunate. Things are going well for the company," he said.

"Having experienced the opposite hopefully I value the good things that are happening all the more now that I have experienced the other side of the spectrum."

Mark Dunkerley

Age: 49
Married to: Marilia.
Interests: Flying, surfs twice a week at Tonggs off Diamond Head, Honolulu and when in New Zealand goes fly fishing.
His must-do tip for Hawaii: The drive around Oahu's Windward Coast to the famous North Shore surf beaches.

Airline grabs its own slice of history

Mark Dunkerley Hawaiian Airlines chief Mark Dunkerley says the vintage Bellanca Pacemaker flies as easily as a Cessna.

Four years ago Hawaiian Airlines made its easiest aircraft acquisition decision.

The airline's original plane, a Bellanca CH-300 Pacemaker, had turned up in parts in Oregon and was being offered for sale.

Chief executive Mark Dunkerley said the airline leaped at the chance to get back the plane, which first flew in 1929.

He now flies it at weekends, taking staff or corporate guests five at a time on sightseeing tours, cruising at a relaxed 160km/h over the islands.

"For its age it's remarkable, it is entirely conventional and flies as easily as a Cessna," said Dunkerley.

The airline's founders deliberately limited their first flights to the most populous island of Oahu to get Hawaiians used to flying before introducing amphibious planes on routes to outer islands.

"The guys who started the airline were remarkably shrewd. Before anyone was going to hop in a plane and fly over water they needed to lose any apprehension about flight."

Dunkerley, who won an East Coast US advanced aerobatics title, says flying was his main form of relaxation.

"The experience of flying an aerobatic plane is very different each time - sometimes its a form of ballet in the sky and at other times a very technical exercise where you want to roll and stop exactly at the assigned points," he said.

"At other times its the joy of flying, free of all the constraints that you're used to on the ground. It's something you've got to concentrate over so it dumps all the stresses and strains out of your mind."

- NZ Herald

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