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Anna Rawhiti-Connell: Air NZ flying in the PR dark

Air New Zealand's removal of newspapers from its Koru Lounges was either sustainable or it was greenwashing. But it wasn't well enough explained, writes Anna Rawhiti-Connell.

I am writing this column in the dark. I’ve turned off the lights as part of my commitment to sustainability. I am in good company this week. Our most trusted company, Air New Zealand, has also reinforced its commitment to sustainability by removing newspapers from Koru Lounges.

There was no elegant announcement or email to Koru members about this as far as I know. I found out on Twitter after someone posted a picture of a sign outside a Koru Lounge, as did many other members of the free cheese club (who they should also consider removing from lounges given the substantial load we represent after eating several kilos of complimentary Kikorangi Triple Cream Blue).

It wasn’t a very controlled or customer-focused way of breaking the news and they have either been ignorant of the rupturing fault lines running underneath an issue like this, arrogant, or something in-between in how it's handled it.

I am not a newspaper reader. And I honestly don’t think members of an elite travel lounge squad being deprived of the papers in the lounge is particularly newsworthy.

What I do find odd and a little concerning is the way Air New Zealand has handled this. It seems a rare flub from the airline; a PR gaffe that has chipped some paint off its shiny black livery.

The use of ‘sustainability’ as a rationale has prompted calls of green-washing as many question whether or not that’s the true reason. Some suspect cost-cutting but I am willing to give Air NZ the benefit of the doubt. Well, I was until I tried to make sense of its numbers.

Air New Zealand has offered this explanation, suggesting it’s not the newspapers themselves that are unsustainable, but the transport of them in the planes.

In a statement, Air New Zealand said removing all newspapers from its aircraft cabins would alone result in cutting more than 700,000kg from its aircraft per year.

"[This] will result in an estimated carbon saving of more than 2 million kilograms each year."

It’s a plausible justification but then Air New Zealand spokesperson offered up another set of numbers to TVNZ:

“Air New Zealand distributes an estimated 33,000 kg of newspapers as cargo to various lounges around the country every day" which "contributes a significant amount to our annual fuel burn and carbon emissions".

I was quite confused trying to make sense of these different sets of numbers with their slightly different language both circulating within two days of each other. 33,000 kg a day is 12,045,000 kilos or 12,000 tonnes a year. The airline has since clarified in an email to me that I was indeed confused and that the ‘700,000kgs per year relates to the weight that would be removed from our aircraft by no longer distributing a physical paper in flight across our global fleet (removing newspapers in flight will result in estimated carbon savings of more than 2,000,000kgs). The 33,000kgs figure relates to the weight of carrying newspapers in the cargo hold each day to distribute them to lounges around the country.’

Perhaps confusion could have been avoided with a single set of numbers, particularly given the public conversation was largely about the removal of newspapers from the Koru lunges and not from flights across the globe. It’s a big number and had it been included in the first communications about the move, it might have helped convince people of the environmental merit of their decision from the outset and to buy the line that it’s part of an entrenched and planned out sustainability narrative.

Since I’m knee-deep in my quest to become an armchair weight-loading expert, I may as well press on and add ‘newspaper distribution expert’ to my growing list of endurable skills.

The Herald, The Dominion Post, The Press and the Otago Daily Times are all printed in the same regions as the airports with lounges. I understand they probably do fly a variety of papers around the country to force Dominion Post readers to engage with Auckland, but surely supply to the main lounges of the main regional papers is done via truck? Hardly a sustainable method of transport either but perhaps it’s an argument to retain locally printed papers in their local lounges. Unless of course, cost is an issue.

The main media companies appeared to have been taken by surprise on this one, expressing disappointment in the decision. Air New Zealand have clarified that any assumption that they didn’t give the companies a heads up is incorrect.   However, Stuff has justifiably responded to any suggestion that their papers aren’t sustainable with a strong statement from Sinead Boucher and an ad in the Sunday Star Times confirming their environmental credentials.

Again, I question why the communications messaging wasn’t a little smoother. The weight load rationale is a strong one but not necessarily the first thing people would think of. Most people made the assumption that the sustainability reason given referred to the papers themselves and not the distribution of them. This gave Stuff ammunition to fire back about the unintended inference, giving the story at least another day in the news cycle. 

The secondary reason the airline has given is changing media consumption habits. Again, possibly a justifiable point but why not accompany this announcement with something to back that up? A quick poll or survey of Koru members might have gone a long way.

Air NZ has also had criticism that axing the biodegradable papers is akin to rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic while the world burns. Many have commented on the vast amount of plastic waste the airline creates and suggested that if this wasn’t a move about cost-cutting, then efforts might have been better directed here. An announcement about a bundle of initiatives alongside the newspaper removal would have given their sustainability argument more legs.

Becoming a sustainable airline is an enormous task. Despite some effort and a lot of public talk, Air New Zealand’s carbon footprint is growing, not shrinking. I don’t think Air New Zealand deserves the beats for trying to do more about it but its arguments on this issue haven’t captured hearts and minds. 

More importantly its handling - arrogant, ignorant or in-between - takes away from its commitment to sustainability. Sustainability is not a trifling matter. We are literally talking about the survival of the planet and if you’re going to stand up tall on this issue, as Air New Zealand frequently does, you need to make sure your rationale rings true. Your numbers need to be consistent and a little less confusing and the primary and strongest argument for your decision needs to be upfront. Getting sustainability right for the airline will involve hard decisions and taking your customers and important stakeholders with you. No one is getting on a plane with people they don’t trust.

In April this year and for the fifth year in a row, Air New Zealand was rated the ‘most trusted’ brand in New Zealand in the 2019 Colmar Brunton Corporate Reputation Index. This trust is a huge part of its brand. The brand is what makes it a leading airline; an airline that flies millions of people to, from and around New Zealand each year - people who contribute to our tourism industry, which in terms of foreign currency earnings, is our largest export industry. What Air New Zealand does or does not do matters to this country.

This isn’t about papers in the lounge for the cheese gobblers. This is about watching a company which usually gets it so right, get it quite wrong and risk one of its most precious commodities, trust, through the handling of this. It's a bad fumble in the dark. Perhaps, just for the sake of maintaining public trust, it should have turned the lights on and examined it more closely.

This column has been edited since its original publication on July 7 2019, following clarification from Air New Zealand about the two different numbers given to media about the weight of papers being distributed and whether they let media know ahead of time.

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