Upfront with NZALPA President
NZALPA President Andrew Ridling
Twenty months into the COVID-19 pandemic, aviation globally has finally begun to rebound – but the industry that has emerged is different than the industry that was essentially forced into a coma in the first months of
the pandemic. The question on most pilots’ and ATC’s minds is how these differences are going to impact the future of aviation in New Zealand.
COVID has disrupted the economy, impacted many businesses, locked down millions of people, closed New Zealand’s borders and brought our industry to the most significant crisis we have ever been asked to work through. The impact of the pandemic on the New Zealand aviation industry – from the flight school provider through to the international airline carrier – in terms of financial losses, airline failure, unemployment and global connectivity, is unprecedented.
As we know, aviation is a crucial industry for the New Zealand economy and, in particular, the regional and international communities that we serve. The air transport industry is responsible for around nine per cent of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP), with the catalytic effect that airlines, airports, the tourism sector, and other players of the industry produce. In line with this recognition, the Government has agreed to extend the Maintaining International Air Connectivity (MIAC) scheme to the end of March 2022. This extension ensures that there continues to be a predictable and regular schedule of air services to and from New Zealand. Maintaining a network that delivers effective international air connectivity is vital for New Zealand’s social and economic wellbeing and is critical for the COVID-19 recovery, particularly as New Zealand looks to increase international passenger travel over the coming months.
It is still difficult to determine how long the pandemic will last and our industry’s resilience in the face of adversity has been extremely impressive and, in reflection, second to none. Winston Churchill’s now famous statement made during the harshest days of World War II has been quoted to me on numerous occasions over the last 18 months: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”
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On considering Churchill’s comments further, they are very applicable to where the aviation industry currently finds itself. We have a lot to deal with as we struggle with what is now being defined as the new normal
of isolation, vaccination certificates, social and physical distancing regular testing, QR scanning and more. Not to mention the unprecedented levels of debt the industry now has.
What Churchill meant by these words was simple but profound – dramatic change is inevitable after an event like that of COVID-19. From a positive perspective, it allows us as an organisation to uncover fresh insights and strategically position the industry to take advantage of opportunities and growth as they present themselves.
Although extremely different circumstances exist, the invasion of Poland had a dramatic influence on the global community and, arguably, World War II was the beginning of the aviation industry that we now experience. Following the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the airline industry, an industry is emerging which is different to what we have been used to before COVID.
One of NZALPA’s core drivers pursued throughout the pandemic is that pilots and air traffic controllers needed to take greater ownership in the administration of our industry. Following focussed work in this area, we are no longer in a position where we sit back and allow others to make decisions on our behalf. We have a respected voice which needs to be listened to, and we provide that balanced view across the industry that previously was missing. NZALPA is “The voice of aviation” in New Zealand. As an organisation we have consistently messaged that pilots and air traffic controllers are key stakeholders that need to take responsibility for their place in the management of pandemic outcomes. We have undertaken that moral responsibility with noteworthy applause, to ensure the risk of COVID crossing New Zealand’s borders has been minimised. With 2700 members we have not had one case of COVID-19 in the last 18 months amongst our membership. Our members have understood the responsibility that they have to the travelling public, the employers they work for, and the profession they represent. The acceptance and discharge of this responsibility has put us in the position where we can continue to proudly and effectively advocate with government, industry, our employers and the regulator, to allow us to move forward in an accountable direction.
I believe NZALPA and its membership have reached a point in time that, going forward, will require global solidarity, learning from each other, collaboration, accepting ingenuity, and being prepared to preserve our ideologies and principles. The global recovery from COVID-19 offers NZALPA an opportunity to show leadership in making the whole aviation business more resilient and safer than it was prior to the pandemic. We are also able to offer our global relationships, networks and friendships that we have continued to work with over the previous 20 months, to our partners in New Zealand.
Recently, one business magazine article opined that in times of crisis the enemy is not uncertainty, but complexity. Airlines are a complex business and therefore the industry will need practical, flexible, and realistic strategic plans to emerge from COVID-19 as worldwide leaders. Visionary leadership is required and has been advocated by the Association over several years. Unfortunately, visionary leadership seldom survives where politics thrive – especially in the corporate environment. We need to be part of the reshaping of our industry. Being able to separate ourselves from the corporate scramble for political relevance allowing our employers the ability to be able to survive and thrive in the new normal, whatever that normal brings.
NZALPA needs to be part of a holistic process to industry development, a process where each step will interact with the other and with the wider airline industry landscape. To achieve this, visionary leaders (identified by virtue of the compelling case they make for change) will need to adopt required innovation, growth or whatever is required to inspire individuals to support an organisation’s direction. That includes NZALPA and its members as the organisation that we belong to.
In reality, a leadership vision needs to be supported by an organisation’s board and its directors. Visionary leadership is entwined with competent corporate governance which is required by the employers we work for in both Air traffic and Pilot organisations. The vision that we expect from our corporate leaders needs to give importance to the work we, both as individuals and as a collective group, do every day. Effective leaders provide a sense of purpose and meaning by developing the vision and communicating it accurately, widely, and convincingly, with NZALPA’s support.
New Zealand’s airline operations need to recognise they have a very genuine opportunity to dominate on the global aviation environment. We cannot go back to the political management appointments of the past. We need to embrace and support the visionary leaders who can return the industry to where we were and further grow the businesses we work for into the future. Individuals who cannot support collaborative visionary leadership need to be called out.
NZALPA’s board has embraced a very strategic direction for the last 20 months forced by reactions to the COVID pandemic. We have had to understand the nature of our business, why NZALPA exists, what we do well, and what is unique about this organisation. We have needed to understand what our members’ performance expectations are, and, most of all, we have needed to manage the organisational risk that we were exposed to as the pandemic continued to unfold. I believe NZALPA and its team has attained an incredible level of achievement for the membership over the last 20 months. We have accomplished outcomes and goals that previously we did not think were possible. Most definitely, “we have not let a good crisis go to waste”.
However, as we emerge from the pandemic we cannot just sit back and trust that those things will continue to improve of their own accord. Nor should we just blindly accept decisions that are imposed upon us. We need to accept that the next level of achievement will require understandings of the extraordinary levels of indebtedness the industry has acquired through Government loans and/or capital raises. Companies will need to manipulate their balance sheets; this will then lead to a requirement for evaluated change by our employers. As an organisation, we need to be part of the discussions to design solutions in the path back to profitability. If we are part of those solutions, there is an expectation then that we will share in the spoils. We now need to turn our thoughts to the future.
With the immunisation programme well underway and the acceptance that New Zealand will live with COVID-19, recovery from the pandemic is now within our reach. We now need to be prepared to think differently and take ownership of our profession as Pilots and Air Traffic Controllers. “Because” should not be the answer we accept anymore. We need to be at the table influencing and supporting all future decisions.
In Switzerland, engineer George de Mestral wanted to comprehend why seeds from plants stuck to his clothing. His investigation found nature had designed hooks on a plant’s seed, which attracted themselves to the looped fibres on his jacket. The famous hook-and-loop alternative to the zip became known as Velcro. This analysis spawned a new industry which is now known as biomimetics, which studies nature so as to resolve human challenges. This highlights the truth that by looking at the small questions some very big answers may arrive.
As an organisation, we have demonstrated our knowledge and abilities to provide a significant positive influence on government, the regulator and the employers we work for, once the political fences of past partisan management
were removed. NZALPA and its membership now needs to remove its own “confirmation bias” of where it sees its role in the industry. If there are any lessons from what we have been through in 2020 and 2021 it is that we now need to not only “think” differently, but now we also have to “see” differently. As Pilots and Air Traffic Controllers we need to counter our built-in conservative tendency to accept a familiar way of seeing and experiencing this industry. Therefore, we need to continue to ask questions and demand the answers from all stakeholders to ensure we are part of the recovery, and not accept the past nepotism that the industry is known for. We need to be the ones to define the new normal.
I stood for President this term so that NZALPA could develop a vision to “see” and not just “think”. I have stood by and watched members and their families suffer and endure the unnecessary hardships of this pandemic as they have lost their careers and their profession that we are all so proud of. COVID-19 happened so quickly and with very little warning. As aviation globally finally begins its rebound, we need to be there to support those members who were made redundant, were furloughed or who lost their jobs to company liquidations or restructures so that they may return to the industry that they love.
The COVID pandemic, like many crises we have faced, has challenged us all over the last 20 months. There has been a start, a middle and – as we look towards the activity in the United tates, Europe and what is currently unfolding in Australia – I believe the airline industry is now looking at the end of the pandemic. It is worthwhile to consider what distinguishes “what was?” from “what is?” and “what will be?” over the next few months. Prior to COVID there was a past of relative stability and predictability within the industry. There is currently confusion and disorder with the current lockdown restrictions within New Zealand, with little prescribed vision from government in relation to our industry.
There will be a different industry in 2022 in which we work. NZALPA holds a leadership position within the aviation industry. This position is now well established and has been essential throughout the COVID crisis. As the new year unfolds, we will need to continue to be resilient and strong in the leadership of our airlines and the industry that we have fought to maintain over the last 20 months.
I am confident that 2022 will start to see our people return.
I wish you all a safe and healthy Christmas. I believe it will be a New Year that we can look forward to.