By FRAN O'SULLIVAN assistant editor
Air New Zealand chief executive Gary Toomey has pulled the ripcord on his golden parachute, becoming the first management head to roll as the airline sheds staff.
After a turbulent nine months in the job, Mr Toomey resigned rather than implement the restructuring plan which he had prepared for Monday's board meeting.
Under the Toomey plan, at least 800 airline jobs will go as management layers are stripped and routes cut.
Analysts are tipping more cuts if the global aviation slump worsens.
The airline said the resignation was by "mutual consent" but it is believed that Mr Toomey was frustrated because he did not have a seat on the board and his role as company spokesman had been cut.
Speculation that Mr Toomey would quit intensified last Thursday when his seat was empty at the press conference to announce the Government's $885 million bailout.
Acting chairman Jim Farmer batted away questions about the vacant chair.
But it was only after Mr Toomey had considered his position during the weekend that he decided his career at Air New Zealand was over.
Until Air New Zealand can find a new chief executive officer, the Government-appointed board member, Roger France, will act as an executive director dealing with management.
Mr Toomey has also resigned from the ANZ Banking Group - one of Air New Zealand's major bankers - where he has been a director since March 1998.
Yesterday, Dr Farmer said: "It is a sad moment for us, but we agree the circumstances in which the company finds itself are quite different from the Australasian airline group that had attracted Mr Toomey to join us at the beginning of the year."
But Herald inquiries indicate Mr Toomey was also frustrated at not having a board seat. His company spokesman role was cut after directors took umbrage at his statements that buying Ansett was "the most stupid mistake we made" and that Ansett was a basket case, and his public criticism of Air New Zealand's major shareholders, Brierley Investments and Singapore Airlines, during the last round of restructuring negotiations.
Controversy over his repeated pledges that Air New Zealand had $1 billion cash to keep Ansett operating - weeks before it collapsed - also severely affected his credibility.
Mr Toomey was yesterday at his home in St Heliers.
Security guards had been detailed to protect the Toomey family after a spate of hate mail and death threats following the Ansett closure.
"He's very protective of home at the moment because they have been under very serious threats," said an Air New Zealand spokesman.
"He's had death threats."
In late September, Mr Toomey told the Herald:
"Unfortunately, they used me as the frontman and now they are turning on me.
"I don't think any of them appreciate that I am not a board member, I'm not a shareholder.
"[They think] that somehow it was my decision to do all this."
His decision to step down from a raft of Ansett directorships on August 24 and pay bonuses to his executives also made him the subject of controversy.
Dr Farmer said: "This is Gary's decision, really.
"We're still catching up. We'll embark on a hunt but we haven't really had time to think yet."
Air New Zealand executives such as Andrew Miller - seconded to the Ansett Administrator to work on the business plan for Ansett Mark II - have been tipped as possible CEO candidates.
Dr Farmer said the airline would try to get the best person it could.
"If it's someone internal, fine; if it's someone internationally, fine."
The airline's slimmed-down board will meet once every 10 days through to Christmas to make sure decision-making is efficient and quick.
"I think Gary's departure is a blow, but we will operate very efficiently in this period," said Dr Farmer.
"I will still be spending all my time down here.
"We've got Roger as an executive director and this bunch of about seven or eight senior vice-presidents who are all up here, and we believe we can work.
"It will be more of a team than having a figurehead who leads from the top. Ultimately, there will be another CEO but in the meantime this is how we are going to operate."
The airline is keeping details of Mr Toomey's settlement package confidential.
"We have negotiated an agreed settlement which is consistent with what is in his contract," said Dr Farmer.
"That is all I'm going to say."
This time last year, Mr Toomey, 46, was riding the crest of a career wave.
For three years he had been a joint managing director of Qantas, where his financial prowess had marked him as a future chief executive.
After missing out on the top job at Qantas, he was headhunted to join Air New Zealand.
He began his new job in January.
By FRAN O'SULLIVAN assistant editor