Air New Zealand last night apologised for a crew manual which profiled passengers by nationality and suggested flight attendants watch Tongans who wanted to "drink the bar dry".
The airline said the document, made public yesterday, was written in 2008 for flight crews. It had since been updated and did not now touch on alcohol or "cultural components".
The document characterised several nationalities, including Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, Tongans and Samoans, and outlined their inflight expectations.
It told cabin staff that Tongan passengers were "softly spoken, reserved people", but many could take advantage of free in-flight alcohol to "drink the bar dry".
Many young Tongan men looked older than they were. "If unsure, ask for ID. This will not offend them."
The comments have infuriated members of the Tongan community.
Community leader Melino Maka said the airline's remarks were "extremely hurtful" and were a case of "the pot calling the kettle black", following recent publicity about several cases of drink-driving airline staff.
Mr Maka, chairman of the Tongan Advisory Council, described the comments as "over the top" and said the airline was "trying to portray that Tongans are uncontrollable alcoholics".
"I don't think Tongans are different from any others when there's free access to alcohol, but what I think [is] the airline should concentrate on education rather than trying to take pot shots at people.
"The remarks are extremely hurtful," Mr Maka said, "and it is not good for public relations or race relations."
Air New Zealand international in-flight product and service general manager Alan Gaskin last night apologised for the manual, but said it was no longer being used for in-flight cabin crew training.
"It was not intended to cause offence and we apologise if it has.
"This section of the document was designed as a reference guide to ensure international cabin crew were familiar with the expectations of the diverse range of nationalities Air New Zealand carries on its international services, so they could provide service levels matching each customer's expectations.
"[It] also highlighted that it was not uncommon that some customers would want to consume more alcohol than others."
Describing other nationalities, the airline manual reportedly said Hong Kong Chinese were demanding, but mainland Chinese weren't fussy.
Koreans expected good manners and patience, and Samoans appreciated rugs because they came from a tropical climate.
Staff were told not to be surprised "if you ask a Japanese female a question and a male customer answers on her behalf".
Labour Party list MP Carmel Sepuloni, who is of Tongan descent, said the remarks were offensive, and she was considering lodging a complaint.
"I don't know what Air New Zealand was thinking in putting something like that together," she said. "They shouldn't be making any generalisations of any ethnic group."
Alcohol Advisory Council figures show Tongans are not as heavy drinkers as Samoans.
The council's Pacific Action Plan report says Tongan drinkers' annual consumption rate is 21 litres of absolute alcohol each, while the average consumption rate for Samoans is 24 litres.
Mr Gaskin said a new standards manual no longer contained a "cultural component" as the "varying expectations" of Air NZ customers were now highlighted in presentations to new international cabin crew when they joined the airline.