Lesley Grant, a former flight attendant with "Air New Zealand in her veins", is now heading what's been described as the jewel in the crown in the Qantas Group.

Grant is chief executive of Qantas Loyalty, with billion-dollar-plus annual revenues and a membership on track to reach 10 million next year.

Across the Tasman loyalty points have been likened to the country's second currency and the former Dunedin woman says leading "the glue" that holds together such an important part of an established institution is a big responsibility.

"I learned very quickly that being such an iconic brand just how much people had invested in the brand," she said.


She started her career in the late 1970s with Air New Zealand, attracted by the prospect of travel.

"It was maybe a shallow view at the time. I never really thought I'd be in the industry as long as I have but it really captivated me."

Grant started as a flight attendant for five years on domestic jets and regional planes which she said stood her in good stead over the years, developing an understanding of customers and the demands on frontline staff.

She then moved to Auckland and into a flight crew management job and in the early 1990s moved into a more senior role with responsibility for the customer and inflight experience of Air New Zealand.

During that time the airline was going through upheaval with cabin crew contracts renegotiated and it started to establish a much more competitive base.

"We had legacy issues, the view back in those times was that some of those contracts were the Rolls-Royce of awards so there needed to be that real reality check about how to compete globally."

She headed inflight services through to the mid-1990s and into the latter part of that decade before leading a team involved in integrating customer brands and marketing activity for Air NZ and Ansett Australia, which the Kiwi airline bought in what became a financial disaster. Ansett Australia had an ageing fleet, was undercapitalised and faced strong competition from new low-cost carriers and collapsed in late 2001, days after 9/11, throwing the jobs of more than 15,000 staff into limbo and pitching transtasman relations to a low point.

Grant was bruised by the experience and after helping wind down the business she quit. "It was traumatic and there's no doubt there was a real backlash for Air New Zealand - people's lives were turned upside down. [But] I didn't feel it personally and forged some very good friendships within the Ansett organisation." she said.

"I decided at that time I would not go back into the airline industry but I was given advice to take three months off, just doing nothing." She took up golf - a game she says she's still learning - when in early 2002 the call came from Qantas.

Her initial role was setting up a centre of service excellence to train all customer- facing staff among the 33,000 Qantas employees.

Around that time Qantas was investing in the first of 12 of its new Airbus A380s and her in-flight management background was called on again.

"I led a team to design the whole experience around the A380 - the interiors, the seats the inflight entertainment and created the first lounges in Sydney and Melbourne."

She then moved to the group executive of customer marketing for about three years before her appointment as chief executive of Qantas Loyalty in May last year.

Last week she was in New Zealand meeting some of the hundreds of thousands of Qantas Frequent Flyer members - a programme signing up about 2000 people a day.

The scheme has just been aligned with Emirates Skywards Miles programme following the launch of the airlines' global partnership early this year.