Analysis: Luxon still flying high after Air New Zealand gig

1:02 pm on 20 June 2019

Analysis - In the turbulent world of aviation, Christopher Luxon can claim to have had more than his fair share of smooth flights.

Air New Zealand has committed to buying eight Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner aircraft.

Outgoing Air New Zealand chief executive Christopher Luxon. Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

The 48-year-old has announced he is leaving the airline's flight deck, to seek new challenges, which may include politics.

Under his leadership the airline has had a makeover in planes, routes, and profitability which has been envied by many larger carriers around the world.

"I do ... feel it is the right time for a new leader to take over and preserve and enhance the good things from our past, but also to put their own stamp on the organisation, bringing their own personality and emphasis to the role as I did," he said in a video message to staff.

He inherited an airline in recovery from former chief executive Rob Fyfe, after it had been through a bruising period, which had included the ill-fated investment into Ansett Australia resulting in the government bailout in late 2001.

Air New Zealand formed a strategic alliance with Australian operator Virgin Blue in 2010, including a quarter stake and cooperation on aligning their respective domestic networks to counter stiff competition. The alliance ended last year.

Under Mr Luxon, the airline has become more service focused and innovative in everything from flight safety videos to lie flat beds in cabins. It's no accident that it has walked away with what might be regarded as the Oscars of the aviation world.

Internally he has been credited with improving the wage structure, rewarding non-executive staff with bonuses, and improving diversity.

He has been lucky to have weak fuel prices and booming tourism converge to deliver record profits in 2016 and solid returns in other years. In that time the airline has also ventured to new destinations such as Vietnam, Argentina, cities within the United States, and he could claim some credit for having met, and matched, strong competition on the core trans-Tasman routes.

But the tailwinds have now become the headwinds. Rising fuel prices will add $200 million to its costs this year, passenger growth is softening, and it was hit by added costs from the engine problems that have afflicted its Boeing 787-Dreamliner planes. The airline is now looking to cut costs even as it plans for a $4 billion refurbishment of its fleet for over the next five years.

Time for a change

Late last month Mr Luxon said he was committed to Air New Zealand as he batted away new suggestions that he has political ambitions.

This month, he said his family circumstances are changing and thus his view on his future.

"I would like to think more about how I can best use my skills, abilities and experience to make a further contribution to the success of New Zealand whether that be through corporate life, politics or a non-profit."

Simon Moutter

Outgoing Spark chief executive Simon Moutter has been touted as an "out of field" replacement for Christopher Luxon. Photo: Leadership NZ

He has long been tipped as a potential National Party candidate and been linked with the safe seat of Botany, something which and the National Party have previously denied.

Mr Luxon heads the government's small business council, created last year amid a tide of business pessimism, so he has the necessary political and business connections.

He is also a polished performer in public, and comparisons have been drawn between himself and Sir John Key's transition from business to politics in the late 1990s. Coincidentally, Sir John is a director of the airline.

As for the potential successors, there is no shortage of potential internal candidates including chief financial officer Jeff McDowall, and chief strategy, networks and alliances officer Nick Judd. Of the outsiders an Air NZ expatriate Ed Sims runs Canadian airline WestJet, and outgoing Spark chief executive Simon Moutter has been touted as something of an "out of field" pick.

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