About 15 years ago, Air New Zealand and its highly unionised workforce were at often at loggerheads, frequent visitors to the employment courts and sometimes facing off across picket lines.
But apart from the occasional flare-up, the past decade has been one of relative industrial harmony, the airline and workers committed to a collaborative programme called High Performance Engagement (HPE).
Under that approach, the company and staff shared the benefits of high growth — escalating profits and bonuses of close to $2000 for frontline employees in some years.
The airline was voted the most attractive employer in the 2019 Randstad employer poll for the third consecutive year, and the sixth time in total. Queues of hopefuls lined up for jobs; in 2017, nearly 50,000 people applied for 3000 jobs as "Air New Zealanders", and staff rarely breached a media policy against speaking negatively of the company in public.
Then came Covid-19.
The company has plunged to its first loss in 18 years, more than a third of its 12,500 staff have lost their jobs, nearly all of its Boeing 777 fleet is in deep storage, and the restoration of its long-haul network could be years away.
Some staff are distraught, according to cabin crew members who contacted the Herald. Some of their colleagues are not coping and requesting additional sessions with EAP (Employee Assist Programme) and some have needed medical care.
Workers on long-haul contracts have offered to shed hard-won conditions and allowances, take leave without pay and make other savings to protect what they say is the remaining 15 per cent of roles. So far, more than 900 long-haul crew jobs have gone and a further 385 roles affecting 350 staff are on the line, with a decision on final numbers due within the next few weeks.
"We understand the airline is hurting and ongoing effects of Covid-19 on the travel industry is devastating, however there is a bigger picture here, we do accept there is less flying but in this case the airline management are using this pandemic to their advantage and it's now a front for a long-desired cull," the cabin crew staffer said.
While Air New Zealand says it is caught in the middle of the worst economic crisis in its 80-year history and has defended its approach to handling staff during the pandemic, Etū union, which represents cabin crew, says the relationship is at an all-time low.
''It's always been a hard job, cabin crew work, but in the midst of these redundancies you've got people flying and locking themselves away in hotel rooms overseas to remain safe from Covid-19 — there has never been a worse time to be widebody cabin crew,'' says the union's head of aviation, Savage.
They are bearing the brunt of the cuts.
Although the number of part-time roles and full-time equivalents complicates total numbers, as at April 1 the union had 2699 Air NZ cabin crew members. At the moment it has 1330 and expects that to drop to just under 1000.
Savage said while E tū accepted the situation was unprecedented and job losses were expected, the sacking of staff remotely during the first lockdown was handled badly.
"There was a lockdown but we still felt that Air NZ didn't live up to the standards that it had set itself and we're looking forward to having a conversation with them about rebuilding those standards."
As an example, some workers found it unhelpful to get text messages from the company asking how they felt.
He said industrial relations relied on "honesty and good faith", and there had been some blunt conversations with the airline.
One problem was the number of middle managers who had gone from the airline, meaning established personal relationships had been lost. Chief people officer Jodie King had announced her departure before Covid-19 struck and this had further complicated the relationship with unions.
E tū did not know anything about the approach of her successor, Joe McCollum, and had met just once with new chief executive Greg Foran before the pandemic struck.
Since then, discussions had all been about the collapse of aviation, the airline's problems and the impact on jobs.
"It's a wait and see game at this stage," said Savage. "We're interested to see what his vision is for the future. He's told his employees that he'll be hearing what they say. As long as he takes that on board and does something to implement ideas he will prove his worth."
Although the Employment Relations Authority (ERA) last week ruled in favour of E tū over the redundancy rights of 777 or Schedule One crew, Savage said job cuts were still pending.
"It is a valuable thing that the rights of workers have been upheld and the company held to account, but I don't think anyone could be pleased to see 350 people losing their jobs."
The airline's chief operating officer, Carrie Hurihanganui, has frontline experience, beginning her career with Air New Zealand as a flight attendant in 1999 while she studied for a business management degree.
She agrees this year has been extraordinarily tough.
Crew were not only dealing with their own experiences of Covid, but also having to deal with often stressed passengers as well, and the loss of colleagues.
She said the airline had set up a number of support structures, including the independent EAP, a "digital wellbeing hub" where staff can arrange meetings with their boss, was encouraging the establishment of peer support networks, and was giving managers more training in identifying issues with staff.
"We were conscious early on we weren't in a short-lived crisis and there would be a long tail. I think relatively early we created lots of tools for people. It doesn't make it any easier for people who are going through the challenge."
EAP sessions for staff weren't limited.
"We have seen an uptick in the use of EAP, which is a good thing when you're dealing with a crisis. Did we think it was a one size fits all? No - there are different things people relate to."
The company was aware that the loss of managers could be a problem so it was clearly mapping out new structures.
Hurihanganui said using video conferencing or phone calls during a major restructure wasn't ideal, but during the first lockdown the company did not have a choice.
Face-to-face meetings and negotiations were always preferred, but staff were becoming more accustomed to video conferencing, and some preferred it.
In June it was thought that savings of $8.5 million could help save long-haul cabin crew jobs but since then the outlook had worsened.
The number of Kiwis returning from overseas was falling and there was no more certainty over the restoration of the long-haul network, which is essential to feeding the entire operation. International travel at 2019 levels could be up to three years away.
That meant the offer of taking extended leave wasn't enough. "We're seeing that in passenger demand, which has led to further de-scheduling so that gap [between the savings crew had offered and what the company needed] has widened and so has the surplus of widebody cabin crew," she said.
The airline wanted to make decisions on the final number of job losses as soon as it could.
"Suspended animation is not a good place for anyone to be in for any length of time."
Hurihanganui said the strong recovery in domestic flying had given job certainty for crew on those planes, and travel bubbles provided hope for short-haul international services. She noted the pride in the airline shown by staff who were working in difficult conditions, and while clarity over the timing of the restoration of long-haul flights would be important in building confidence and morale, there was other work the airline was doing.
It had actively worked with New Zealand authorities to ensure flight crew based here weren't subject to the same testing and isolation requirements of other airlines' crew based overseas. Some of its crew were also furloughed for up to two years, to re-enter the workforce when flying resumed.
It was using the collaborative principles of HPE in a different way. "The teamwork and how we have each other's back has taken a different dynamic. We're not going to wait for international," she said.
"We can always do more and we can continue to improve it, but I think everyone has shown up to the table to find the most sustainable outcome."
Relying on relationships
Employment law specialist James Crichton says both the company and staff are facing an unpleasant commercial reality.
"There's an issue of the company's commercial situation around the Covid emergency; both the company and its employees have to take that into account and in how they structure their affairs — how that pans out is anybody's guess."
Crichton, a former member and chief of the ERA and now at Three60 Consult, said Air NZ has had an "impressive record" of collaboration with its employees over a number of years.
It had worked hard with the relevant unions and this should put the company in good stead. '"It's now having to rely on the relationships that have been made in times of plenty for reducing the workforce now when times are lean. That will impose some stresses and strains."
He said industrial relations relied on personal relationships and the loss of former networks at the airline would be an additional strain.
"The whole basis of our system relies on collaborative working relationships and relationships that are based on trust — the absence of those relationships mean it is far more difficult to organise."