Grant Bradley: Will Christopher Luxons political timing be as sweet as at Air NZ?


Christopher Luxon will be hoping his timing in politics is as good as it was at Air New Zealand.

The new National Party leader took up the top job at the airline at the start of 2013 just as the air travel was about to boom.

He left it in September 2019, just three months before the start of the worst global health crisis in a century that financially devastated airlines, including Air NZ.

During Luxon’s six and a half years at the top the airline enjoyed years of growth and some ”super profits,” peaking at $663 million in 2016, its best ever financial result.

In what was known as the ”Golden Age of Travel” it benefited from the post global financial crisis recovery, relatively cheap fuel for parts of that time and a huge appetite from a growing middle class to go places.

Luxon had these tailwinds behind him, but he made his own luck making the airline nimble, moving towards a more uniform fleet, forging and ending critical alliances and quitting routes that didn’t make sense.

He can be engaging on a one-to-one basis and great with a bigger audience with big dollops of self-deprecation and crunchy phrases to go around some big ideas.

He was proudly an airline outsider, coming from the brutal business of selling fast moving consumer goods in North America, and made much of running Air NZ with a fresh pair of eyes, something he said today he will do for the National Party.

Like predecessor Rob Fyfe- who Luxon can thank for laying the foundations for the funky feel and tone of the airline – he became a sought after speaker at big airline events overseas to talk about the Air New Zealand story and also his own.

His smarts were seen in the tight and extremely effective and stable executive team he built around him. The airline’s staff grew rapidly to around 12,000 and were rewarded with bonuses of thousands of dollars in the good years.

While consistently topping best places to work surveys, unions say they didn’t see much of Luxon, especially in the later years and by some accounts he didn’t hold back when venting at times when things weren’t going well.

It was under his watch that Air NZ axed some unprofitable regional routes causing a community backlash and Shane Jones-driven political blowback that surprised – and invigorated – him.

He doesn’t mind a scrap and wasn’t beyond engineering one himself – one example was winding up Auckland Airport by trying to put Whenuapai back on the agenda as an alternative for some flights.

His religious beliefs will be further under the microscope now but has said that he didn’t lead Air NZ or Unilever as a Christian chief executive but led them as a CEO who just happens to be a Christian.

Looking in from the outside, this was the case for the Diet Pepsi swigging non-drinker.

During his tenure at the airline the Sydney Mardi Gras flights disappeared. An insider said this was not at his behest.He was a staunch backer of theManu network established by Māori and Pacific Island staff and embraced te reo.

And after some time wrestling with it, he relaxed the ban on visible tattoos in the year he left.

Luxon liked to be liked at the airline but now faces a much bigger popularity test.

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