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Bryan Gould

Bryan Gould, CNZM, writes an occasional column on current events

Bryan Gould: Kiwi class still flying friendly skies

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New Zealand culture is a world best-seller that should not be sold out to a homogenised global economy.

There is a friendly Kiwi atmosphere on Air New Zealand flights. Photo / Natalie Slade
There is a friendly Kiwi atmosphere on Air New Zealand flights. Photo / Natalie Slade

In the 10 years or so before my wife (English born and bred but now a proud Kiwi) and I returned to live in New Zealand, we flew back to New Zealand from Britain on many occasions.

We always felt, as we boarded the Air New Zealand flight at Heathrow, that in doing so we had already returned home.

There was something about the atmosphere on the plane, as we settled into our seats for the long flight, that was quintessentially New Zealand. Whether it was the soft New Zealand accent, the ready smiles of the cabin staff, or that attractive combination of efficiency and friendliness that Kiwis seem to manage so effortlessly, there could be no doubt that we had already engaged with a slightly different culture from the one we were leaving.

That sense was reinforced, I recall, on one flight that took place while a rugby test between the All Blacks and South Africa was being played. We, with many others on board, were keen to know the result. The captain obliged by relaying the score to us throughout the flight, and he was greeted with a mighty cheer when he reported that the All Blacks had won.

On one of our earlier visits, my wife wondered out loud why everyone we met (and by that she meant not people we knew but those we came across in shops, hotels, restaurants) was so friendly and helpful. I attempted an answer by observing that whereas the British class system meant that many of those obliged to serve others did so either with excessive obsequiousness or with sullen resentment, Kiwis had no such hang-ups.

These recollections were brought to mind when we once again boarded an Air New Zealand flight to fly home last week. We had flown with a different airline (which will remain nameless) on two legs of our journey there and back, and had bemoaned the indifferent service, the poor food and the uncomfortable seats.

The Air New Zealand flight, by comparison, was a revelation. The food (inspired by Peter Gordon) was excellent, the wine delicious, the seats (so far as they can be) comfortable, and the service - true to form - friendly and helpful.

When our young grandson was asked what he would like as a hot drink for breakfast, he wasn't interested in the tea or coffee but, when prompted, expressed interest in a Milo instead. A few minutes later, the steward returned with a cup made especially for him.

None of this means that Air New Zealand is perfect - no airline is, and long-haul air travel in particular is always a bind. But we are entitled to conclude that the particularly New Zealand characteristics they bring to their task do make a difference - and that is borne out by the consistently high ratings they register from passenger surveys and international awards.

That customer satisfaction is reflected, too, in the impressive commercial performance that Air New Zealand turns in. These are tough times for airlines but Air New Zealand, while having its own problems to overcome, has succeeded in business terms better than most.

But the real lesson to be learned from Air New Zealand's success is that treating customers as people and allowing the personality (and, in this case, the specifically New Zealand personality) of the company to shine through are not inconsistent with - and are indeed an important contributor to - a positive bottom line.

It is worth learning this lesson and applying it more widely, before we are all absorbed into the same homogenised global economy in which national characteristics and individual service are sacrificed to the overriding drive to cut costs. No country has embraced the global economy more enthusiastically than New Zealand and - more than any other developed country - we have allowed large chunks of our national economy to pass into foreign hands.

The decisions that are made by those foreign owners are reached in boardrooms located far from our shores by people who know little and care less about what makes New Zealand and New Zealanders tick. They owe no loyalty or commitment to our values or ways of doing things; their sole concern is the short-term return on their investment.

What Air New Zealand's success should tell us is that our peculiarly New Zealand way of doing things has a real value. That value can be measured and expressed in social and cultural terms by New Zealanders because they are familiar and comfortable with it but also by others who find it appealing precisely because it is unfamiliar to them; and, importantly, it also has a marketable value in commercial terms in today's global economy. We would be foolish to give it up.

Bryan Gould is a former UK Labour MP and former vice-chancellor of Waikato University.

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