Air NZ at 80: From flying boats to 'cuddle class' - a look back at 80 years of Air New Zealand

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Photo credit: Getty Images/Air New Zealand/Newshub

This week marks the 80th birthday of Air New Zealand and although it may not be the best time for celebration, it's important to look back at how far the airline has come since its first flight in 1940.

Given my first Air NZ experience wasn't until 1987 when I was aged four, I'm fascinated by the earlier days of the airline and how advanced Aotearoa's aviation was overall.

From Richard Pearse to Jean Batten, our geographic isolation meant flying was always going to be essential to New Zealand's future, and that's as evident today as it was 80 years ago.

Here's a brief history of Air New Zealand:

1940

This is when it all began. Air NZ started flying between Auckland and Sydney under the name TEAL (Tasman Empire Airways Limited). But unlike the aircraft of today, the airline used flying boats. Auckland's Waitemata Harbour was essentially the country's first international 'airport.'

Zk-AMA 'Aotearoa'
Zk-AMA 'Aotearoa' Photo credit: Air New Zealand

The first flight took place on April 30 using an aircraft called Aotearoa and took 10 passengers from Auckland to Sydney. The Short Empire flying boat flight took 7 hours 30 minutes.

1965

TEAL was rebranded Air New Zealand and began flying to the United States and Asia using Douglas DC-8 aircraft.

1966

The airline suffered its first fatal accident on July 4 when a DC-8 crashed during take-off on a training flight at Auckland International Airport. There were no passengers onboard, but two of the five crew onboard were killed.

1978

Air NZ took over National Airways Corporation (NAC), an airline also owned by the Government operating domestic flights.

Air NZ at 80: From flying boats to 'cuddle class' - a look back at 80 years of Air New Zealand
Photo credit: Air New Zealand/Newshub/Getty

1979

The darkest day in the history of the airline. Air NZ Flight 901 crashed into Mount Erebus in Antarctica, taking the lives of 257 people.

The airline had been operating scenic flights to the continent. Fallout from the tragedy lasted for decades. It took until 2019 for the families of those onboard to receive an apology. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Air NZ board chair Dame Therese Walsh made the historic statement on the 40th anniversary of the incident last year.

1981

Air NZ received its first Boeing 747 aircraft which began services to London a year later in 1982. It became the pride of the airline and the most iconic aircraft of its era.

Air NZ at 80: From flying boats to 'cuddle class' - a look back at 80 years of Air New Zealand
Photo credit: Air New Zealand

1989

This was the beginning of a turbulent time for Air NZ, as it was sold by the Government to a consortium led by Brierley Investments.

1996

Air NZ launched a new low-cost subsidiary, Freedom Air, to take on short-haul competition from newly-launched Kiwi Air and Australian airline Qantas.

2000 

Air NZ outbid Singapore Airlines and acquired full ownership of Ansett for AU$680 million.

Ansett was in financial trouble and numerous moves were made by management to try and turn the airline around, including staff cuts.

Air NZ at 80: From flying boats to 'cuddle class' - a look back at 80 years of Air New Zealand
Photo credit: Alexander Turnbull Library - Record: 22825457

Its poor performance had a massive impact on Air NZ's finances and the company eventually cut Ansett off. Neither private investment or assistance from the Australian government could help rescue the airline, and it closed, at the cost of thousands of jobs.

In 2001 the government purchased 83 percent of Air NZ as part of an NZ$885 million rescue package. 

2002

As competition on the domestic market heated up, the meals on-board Air NZ flights cooled down. The airline introduced a new low-cost airfare model which meant meals and alcohol were a thing of the past on domestic flights.

2004 

An attempt by Qantas to purchase 22 percent of Air NZ was blocked by the New Zealand High Court.

Air NZ at 80: From flying boats to 'cuddle class' - a look back at 80 years of Air New Zealand
Photo credit: Air New Zealand

2008

Another tragedy hit the airline in 2008. Crew onboard an Airbus A320-200 on a post-maintenance flight in France crashed into the Mediterranean, killing all seven people onboard.

Air NZ crew were preparing to return the aircraft to Aotearoa after it had been leased by XL airlines.

2010

Air NZ received its first 777-300ER aircraft from Boeing. Onboard was a new product that would become known as 'cuddle class': the Economy Skycouch.

The airline also entered an alliance with Virgin Australia in a deal that meant reciprocal access to frequent flyer programmes and airline lounges. Air NZ went on to purchase a 26 percent shareholding in Virgin Australia, but sold these in 2016 and exited the alliance completely in 2018.

Air NZ at 80: From flying boats to 'cuddle class' - a look back at 80 years of Air New Zealand
Photo credit: Air New Zealand

2011

After choosing Airbus over Boeing to replace its aging 737 domestic aircraft, Air NZ received its first Airbus A320 and its arrival revealed the aircraft was painted entirely black, as part of the airline's 'Crazy about Rugby' campaign.

2012

Technology was introduced that we now take for granted in the fast-track passport processing kiosks, firstly in Sydney.

2014 

Delays are never good for an airline, but four years after it was due, Air NZ received its first Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner. It was also the year the airline retired the last of its Boeing 747 aircraft, which had its last flight from San Francisco and had Newshub onboard. 

Air NZ at 80: From flying boats to 'cuddle class' - a look back at 80 years of Air New Zealand
Photo credit: Air New Zealand

2018

Air NZ was one of many airlines hit hard by issues with the Trent 1000 TEN engines fitted to its Boeing 787-9 fleet. The disruption meant flight cancellations and forced the airline to lease aircraft from other airlines, with the chaos continuing into 2019.

Fresh out of its alliance with Virgin Australia, Air NZ entered into a new tight alliance with its former rival Qantas, allowing the airlines to work together on bookings and route connections.

2019

Air NZ announced it had ordered eight Boeing B787-10 Dreamliners alongside its announcement it would be launching a non-stop service between Auckland and New York.

The first of the Boeing 787-10s was due to arrive in 2022.

Although it's April at the time of publishing, there's no way of knowing what could be written about Air NZ by the end of 2020.

Air NZ at 80: From flying boats to 'cuddle class' - a look back at 80 years of Air New Zealand
Photo credit: Air New Zealand

The airline is currently operating at about one percent capacity compared to last year and there's a bumpy runway ahead.

But the koru is woven tight into the history of Aotearoa and that's unlikely to change. New Zealand needs a national airline.

Thank you to those who gave their time or photos towards this article. If there's a part of the airline's history you'd like to pay tribute to, you can do so on our Newshub Travel Facebook group.

I look forward to reviewing the airline's milestones on its 90th birthday in 10 years time.

Kia Kaha.

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