Norm Thompson is getting ready to depart Air NZ after 46-year career

We were just getting used to decimal currency and the end of 6 o'clock pub closing when Norm Thompson started work at Air New Zealand.

Employee 2394 took up his desk as a finance clerk not too long after the airline had entered the jet age on international routes, had yet to fly jets domestically and still had turbo-prop planes flying across the Tasman.

Thompson remembers climbing the stairs in a rickety old building in Elliott St in Auckland's CBD to start work in the finance department on January 15, 1968. He was just 18.

"I was bloody nervous, actually. I was very much a kid in shorts and it was very daunting but they welcomed me with open arms," he said.


Thompson retires on New Year's Eve after a swag of senior management jobs at the airline and having been at the epicentre of nearly every crisis - and every triumph - of the past 46 years.

He comforted families after Erebus and shared the airline's pain of losing colleagues in that crash and another years later at Perpignan. He was marched from the building by those handling the collapse of Ansett Australia and held his breath before the Government bailed out Air NZ.

But there were highs, too, and Thompson leaves the airline as strong as ever with revenues - his most recent responsibility - topping $4 billion. "I feel as though the company is in great heart, as if I've made a contribution ... it's a fantastic time to retire," he said before a tribute dinner in Auckland last night.

Rewards in learning job from ground up

Norm Thompson has always been one of the more relaxed characters at the top of Air New Zealand. On the fifth floor of The Hub, Air New Zealand's Auckland headquarters, the word is he's been working as hard this year as any before.

He puts his longevity at the airline and ability to cope with stress down to the support of his family, surrounding himself by strong teams and keeping in shape running and going to the gym.

The 63-year-old is one of the better-connected airline executives around the world and has been described as an unofficial tourism and trade ambassador. His business networks are legendary - most suit wearing commuters on main trunk flights either know him, or know of him.

But it could have all been different.

Thompson, who did most of his schooling in Wellington and moved to Auckland when his father, a banker, was transferred, was tempted by a job at United Empire Boxing but opted out of packaging and into a fast growing Air New Zealand which had been known as Tasman Empire Airways Ltd (TEAL) until 1965 when it got its first DC8 jets to fly to Australia and hop across the Pacific to the United States and into Asia.

In the finance department there were no computers so everything was done on paper and that's where he got his grounding that has served him throughout the past 46 years - understanding in minute detail how fares are constructed, how revenue is divided between many airline partners and knowing intimately the details of bills from catering to fuel.

There was also a lot of red tape, with fares fixed according to government rules.

"The government used to have something like the fare police to make sure you were filing fares and weren't undercutting anyone," he said.

From being a senior accountant Thompson moved into sales for the northern region in the early 1970s and set up the airline's corporate travel division.

Air New Zealand - which was separate to domestic airline NAC until 1978 - was focused then on getting Kiwis to travel rather than bringing the world to New Zealand.

Looking after Sir Ed

Thompson went on to head sales for all of New Zealand later in the 1970s but still had some business clients he would deal with personally.

"One of the incredible customers was Sir Edmund Hillary. Sir Ed would come in to the office with this rucksack and say, 'Norm I'm off to Nepal and you need to get me to Kathmandu by a certain date'. I developed quite a close relationship with him."

Air New Zealand and NAC were 100 per cent government owned and in 1978 were ordered to merge with one initial decree - no job losses.

"That was a tough gig - they wanted the merger to go ahead but there would be no redundancies. There was a massive number of staff who were duplicated," he said.

In those days NAC branch managers were posted throughout the country.

"They were like your local bank manager in that they were known around town and predominantly on the golf course on a Wednesday afternoon, making those social connections that you did then. When we were eventually able to bring about some rationalisation I had the terrible task of making those branch managers redundant."

During the 70s the international airline was growing quickly following the arrival of the DC10. Thompson said the DC10 was among his favourites with its signature sheep skin rugs in first class and thickly padded seats throughout.

"In those days fuel was next to bugger all so you could put extra weight into aircraft and make it luxurious. It was very glamorous, you had days when the trolley was wheeled out in first class and the steward would be carving the beef and plating it."

The Erebus disaster

Thompson can recall vividly when the evening news came through about the tragedy at Erebus on November 28, 1979.

"I remember (being) at home and getting the phone call from one of the staff asking if I'd heard the news that they'd lost contact with our plane."

Thompson raced into the downtown headquarters when news came through that wreckage of the DC10 had been spotted on Mount Erebus with little chance of any survivors among the 257 passengers and crew aboard what was found to be a doomed flight.

"We were split up into teams to look after families. I was allocated half a dozen families to stay in contact with and help them bring relatives into Auckland to come together and grieve. There were the various ceremonies we had and that was tough because none of us in those days had any real training as far as that was concerned." He said some staff coped well but others on the support teams had to be replaced. The disaster for Air New Zealand was compounded by safety concerns around the DC10 which led to their grounding around the world.

The airline's continued work on the merger and the arrival of the Boeing 747 in 1981 helped move staff on from grieving, Thompson said.

He recalls going out to Auckland Airport to welcome the first jumbo.

"We had tears in our eyes with the arrival of that aircraft. It was like being reborn. We were getting big in the game with these monster aircraft. It was a significant lift to the airline."

Opening up NZ

Thompson, in the 1980s, had charge of regional sales for New Zealand and the Pacific Islands and had responsibility for cargo but got his big leap into management under chief executive Jim Scott who broke the airline into six business units.

Thompson became general manager of domestic operation where he gained operational experience while still having responsibility for all the airline's revenue.

For the first time he got to really know the country and Queenstown particularly. Thompson was challenged by tourist operators to fly jets into Queenstown and used the hush kit technology to ensure it could land at the resort town.

"One of the things I'm really proud of is that, through the team we had, we pioneered jets into Queenstown, not just with domestic but with international flights."

It was through the late 80s and into the 1990s that the airline was growing and bringing in 747s and 767s to open up new destinations and a network close to what it is today.

But the airline was still a lot smaller than today (employee numbers today are into the sixty thousands) and with a smaller staff, a tighter group.

"We always had good parties, there were always times to celebrate. It was a great family, everyone supported each other and a lot of those connections are there today."

The arrival of Ansett in 1987 brought competition to domestic routes and good times for travellers who benefited from a race to the top; air bridges, lounges and fancy food on flights.

America and the Cup

In 1992 Thompson was appointed to expand its North American operations and went with his family to Los Angeles for five years with the intention of doubling its revenues from there. It added direct flights to Sydney to its Auckland services and for a while was the biggest foreign carrier operating out of Los Angeles.

Airline relationships were being formalised in the 90s with the formation of OneWorld and the Star Alliance which Air New Zealand went on to join. Thompson was dispatched to Chicago for a meeting with Star heavyweight United Airlines to discuss how the alliance could work for each airline.

"It was always the case when you visited other airlines there was always two of you and 12 of them. The ratio was ridiculous."

But when Thompson told the United executives they would need capacity to handle the four jumbo jets Air New Zealand was flying to LAX jaws dropped.

In 1995 Team New Zealand was also punching above its weight on the water and Air New Zealand was a commercial supporter when Sir Peter Blake's team won the America's Cup

"Being there the day we won the America's Cup was one of those magical memorable moments. I still think that night was probably the greatest party I've ever been to in my life - the Cup was being passed around filled with champagne. It was absolutely incredible."

A charter flight returned the Cup to New Zealand, in seat 1A.

There were also setbacks beyond Air New Zealand's control. The years after Nelson Mandela's release in 1990 saw South Africa compete more strongly against New Zealand as a destination for Americans and the overnight devaluation of the Mexican peso was another "kick in the guts".

Marched from building

In 1997 he came back to head up Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, his main role trying to make the relationship with Ansett Australia work. Then Air New Zealand had a 50 per cent stake and in 2000 made the ill-fated decision to buy the rest of what was an airline with big legacy costs and a jumbled fleet.

It was facing increased competition particularly from Qantas (which he still rates as tough but not as formidable as Emirates) and just before Ansett collapsed on September 14, 2001, it was losing $1.3 million a day.

"That week of Ansett collapsing and 9/11 was one of the worst weeks in my career, I recall being down in the bowels of the Ansett building and working out what time of the night we were going to call it quits. We wanted to make sure we had all the staff on the ground and the assets locked up. It was about 2am in the morning that we had to ground it," said Thompson.

The day managers had to tell staff the airline was closing "was bloody gut wrenching", he said.

"I worked with them (administrators) for a few more days and then was basically marched off the premises. My bag was checked to make sure I wasn't taking any confidential papers. Being marched out was not a pleasant experience at all."

Minutes from collapse

As transtasman relations hit a new low with the loss of more than 16,000 jobs in Australia and amid post 9/11 air travel chaos, Thompson was scrambled back to Auckland where Roger France was the acting chief executive.

"What I was really focused on was building an Air New Zealand sales force in Australia quickly."

He said he was moved by the number of staff, then in limbo, who volunteered to stick with Air New Zealand's sales team in Australia even though there were doubts about whether they'd be paid.

The airline was on the brink of collapse.

"We were 20 minutes away from being declared bankrupt until the government came along with its $870 million."

With collapse narrowly averted, new chief executive Ralph Norris set about reforming the airline. Routes and costs were cut and there was a complete overhaul of its service model. "We had to rebuild the airline. That was our proudest achievement - coming back from virtually ground zero to where we are today. Not many airlines have been able to do this."

View of the top

In 2005, Rob Fyfe became chief executive - a role Thompson had applied for.

"I was the first one to shake his hand and say congratulations and that he had my total support."

Fyfe was an instinctive leader, those instincts were never stronger than following the crash of an Air New Zealand plane on a test flight off Perpignan in France in 2008 in which four of the airline's staff and three others died.

Thompson heard the news on the radio and by 7.17am was first in to set up an emergency control centre at Air New Zealand. By 10.20 Thompson was at the airport and on his way to France.

"Seeing that tail floating in the water was like Erebus - they were two pictures you never thought you'd see."

Fyfe appointed Thompson to be his deputy, retaining sales functions but also working on the new Boeing 787 programme, environmental initiatives and closely with the tourism industry. He stayed on after Christopher Luxon's appointment as chief executive - a role Thompson didn't apply for - to help the relative newcomer to aviation settle into the job.

"He's a very quick learner," Thompson said of Luxon. "He's bottom-line focused and focused on delivering on what you say you're going to deliver."

Next moves

Thompson has had numerous tourism industry posts, the latest his appointment to the board of Tourism New Zealand this week.

He's deputy chair of Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development and was previously the chair of the Tourism Industry Association for 10 years. He's eyeing directorships at one already listed company and two others considering IPOs. He's also looking forward to more time with his wife Jenny, two daughters and four grandchildren. Last night's function was attended by five chief executives and featured video messages from Prime Minister John Key and All Black captain Richie McCaw. The evening had a golf theme - Thompson's passion. For his part he's hoping to get his handicap down into single figures.