Business Hub: Air New Zealand Dreamliner captain and union leader Andrew Ridling

Air New Zealand Dreamliner captain Andrew Ridling is going where few Kiwis are.

Overseas.

Kiwis made more than 3 million trips overseas last year but now the 787 pilot is among just tens of thousands who have been travelling beyond New Zealand’s borders since the Covid-19all but closed them.

The pilot of 30 years says it is a weird world to be flying in.

“Surreal is the word. You go through Los Angeles and there’s nobody, you go through Auckland and all the duty free shops are boarded up, Hong Kong there is nobody, the second runway is covered by Cathay planes.”

Pre-Covid there was usually a 10-aircraft queue to land in Narita, now it’s straight in with just two or three other planes in the air during a recent trip there.

In Melbourne and Brisbane spare runways are nose to tail with Qantas planes.

Ridling, who is president of the New Zealand Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) recalled that during the depths of lockdown he was cleared to land in Sydney halfway across the Tasman because just three other aircraft were using the airport that day.

“The air traffic controller couldn’t stop talking because there had been nobody to talk to. Everyone is friendly, the whole world is like this — they welcome any arrival.”

Two thirds of his international flying is freight only.

”It’s quite surreal to be flying an aircraft with just three pilots and 350 empty seats. When we walk through the airports there is nobody to be seen,” says Ridling.

At airports around the world international arrivals are met by a handful of border and security agents but many more health officials.In Australia flight crew stay on planes whose doors are opened by officials wearing full haz-mat suits.

Hong Kong requires pre-flight negative tests, and in Shanghai they are confined to an airport hotel the Chinese government has taken over and which offers few frills.

“You need to take your own food otherwise it’s just a bowl of fried rice,” he says.

The United States is designated a high risk country and In Los Angeles and San Francisco air crew are confined to their hotel rooms – restaurants are closed and the cities are in lockdown.

He’s into double figures of nasal Covid tests which, he says, don’t get more comfortable with practise.

“It’s doable but the saliva test they use in Hong Kong is better,” he says.

”It’s quite arduous at the moment but the other side of the coin is that we’re probably lucky to have jobs.”

Thousands of pilots around the world have been fired or are on long-term furlough as total capacity struggles towards 50 per cent of the levels of this time last year.

More than 40 airlines have failed and those still operating are burning through an estimated $450,000 a minute.

In New Zealand about 700 pilots have lost their jobs or are on furlough out of around 2200 commercial pilots represented by ALPA.

More than 300 Air NZ pilots have been furloughed without pay and redundancy under a 10-year deal that allows them to rejoin the airline and around 220 Virgin pilots were out of work after operations closed in this country in April.

“I know it’s going to be tough Christmas for people and it grates me that we can’t do anything more for them. That’s the heartbreaking thing of Covid – the families of the people who have lost their jobs.”

Ridling knows the pain of redundancy – he lost his job at Air New Zealand soon after starting at the airline in 1989.

From Coromandel to Kinshasa

He grew up on the North Shore and while at school developed a passion for flying. When he left Rosmini College he spent three years at Walsh Flying School in Matamata.

The first plane he flew was a Cessna 152.

The eldest of four boys and his father a teacher and his mother a nurse, the family had no connection to the aviation industry.

He continued building hours at Ardmore and his first job was for Air Coromandel based in Whitianga flying passengers to Auckland;and then in Kiribati where he flew Trislanders and the Marshall Islands where he flew Hawker Siddeley 748s.

“I thoroughly enjoyed it — I was 20 years of age having a ball living in the Pacific.”

He joined Air New Zealand in 1989 flying Fokker Friendships but got made redundant at the end ofthe next year during changes brought in during the Brierley buy-in to the airline. The airline sold its Friendships, leaving 74 pilots out of work, including Ridling.

“After I got made redundant in 1990 I saw how it affects peoples’ families. I was lucky, I was a single 20-year-old and went off to Africa.”

From what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo he flew DC8s for Air Zaire taking flowers from Kinshasa to Amsterdam, returning

home via Rome and Paris.

“The airline never made any money and eventually the airline got repossessed by Cargolux in Luxembourg and that was the end of that.”

When he returned to New Zealand in 1993 he worked briefly as a contract pilot for Southern World Airlines on DC8s.That too went bust in what were ”cowboy” days of freight flying.

”You just used to jump on an airplane and go places.”

He rejoined Air NZ as a second officer on a Boeing 767 flying to Japan, Thailand, Singapore and Honolulu.

“I really wanted to get back into Air New Zealand — it is the company I always wanted to fly for. We’ve had our ups and downs [but] it’s a great airline.”

He went on to Boeing 777s, then captain on A320s domestically and across the Tasman and later a captain on the 787 soon after Air New Zealand started getting the planes in 2014.It is his favourite aircraft to fly.

When he came back to New Zealand he also stood for ALPA positions and has twice been president, between 1999 and 2000 and again since last year.

His own experience of redundancy and the bumpy state of aviation helped shape his views of the industry.

“I learned a lot and that shaped me for the future. It made me think — ‘I’ve worked for everything and now I’ve lost it — am I going to keep fighting for this?”’

Getting to know the boss

Ridling has worked at Air New Zealand through tumultuous times; ownership controversies, the airline’s near collapse as aviation was rocked by the 2001 terror attacks, Sars and Mers, the global financial crisis and now Covid-19.

This is by far the worst economic event to hit airlines.

Maintaining a harmonious relationship with pilots is crucial for any airline and ALPA works closely with Air New Zealand.Ridling says since 2001 each chief executive has been very different:

Ralph Norris led the airline out of near-collapse from 2001.

”I think Ralph Norris will never get the credit for what he did with the airline — he rebuilt it, really, with ordering aircraft – including the Dreamliner. He set down the strategy,” says Ridling.

Rob Fyfe was chief executive from 2005 to 2012.

”He built on that — he put a face to the airline, made us part of New Zealand and coined the phrase that [staff] were all Air New Zealanders and members of a big family.”

Christopher Luxon was chief executive from 2013 to 2019.
”Christopher had a vision that Air New Zealand was going to be the greatest airline in the world — he did a great job, we were expanding. He took it to places it hadn’t been before.”

Former Walmart US boss Greg Foran took over in February.

”I have a lot of time for Greg he will listen to what you have to say, he’s very personable, gets beside people. We’ve also got a board chair in Dame Therese [Walsh] who is a good appointment as well. Between the two of them I don’t think we could have had more stable leadership than what we have at the moment.”

Ridling says the association’sinternational links to pilots’ groups provided intelligence on the magnitude of the looming crisis early.It was involved in helping repatriate Kiwi colleagues out of Wuhan (where it sent masks) and fed information to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

ALPA was also made privy to the dire state of Air New Zealand’s finances after border restrictions were imposed in March.

“I reached out to Greg very quickly after that,” says Ridling.

”We went from a $6b company to zero or overnight – the thing was grounded.”

What's the flight path?

Throughout the crisis Ridling has often been available to media despite still flying and heading the association as it deals with the biggest single loss of jobs in the industry.As you would want in a pilot, he’s calm and, in spite of the scale of the crisis, optimistic.

His wife Lysa has been a great sounding board, he says, and the association has a well-developed peer assistance network that he says has been busier this year than ever.

Being a relatively small and closely connected workforce helps to quickly reach those who need help.

”We can get to them before they get to themselves,” he says.

”Compared to the rest of the world we’re doing very well — Qantas hasn’t flown for seven months, their guys have been sitting on the ground without pay.”

The New Zealand domestic market has recovered to around 85 per cent of pre-Covid levels, government subsidies are propping up freight flights and Air NZ has won some cargo work from the Australian government.

Prospects of full transtasman and Pacific Islands bubbles offer some more flying for his members but a restoration of international travel to previous levels is some way off and he says this will come after successful vaccines are widely available.

”I’m very positive — I think New Zealand could boom out of this.Air New Zealandis an iconic brand and the competition is going to be cut, especially in the long haul.”

With many cheap aircraft and surplus crew around the world short-haulplayers would”come and go”, he says.

“We’ve been through this before. The one thing we do know is that we will come through the other side — it’s just a matter of when.”

Andrew Ridling

• Air NZ Dreamliner captain
• President of NZ Air Line Pilots Association
• Married to Lysa
• Four childrenaged between 18 and 28
• Lives on 2ha block in Albany
• Holidays in Northland where he fishes and dives
• Diehard Northcote Rugby Club and North Harbour supporter
• Last book he read – Don’t Split the Difference, about industrial negotiations by an FBI negotiator Chris Voss

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