Air New Zealand celebrates native culture

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Michael FabeyAndrew Baker's job, on some days, is literally a walk in the park.

However, the "park" in question is the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park outside Auckland, where you don't so much walk as climb, slash and trip your way through a maze of bush paths.

Te Kawerau a Maki, members of the local New Zealand Maori tribe, call the ranges Te Wao-nui-aTiriwa, which means the great forest of Tiriwa, after the tribe's ancestors.

"The connection with the land, trees and plants to us as a people is still relevant today, as it was for our ancestors," Baker said.

A proper native bush-bash through the Waitakere includes a oral anthology of stories and songs in an outdoor cathedral of centuries-old trees.

As the Maori cultural ambassador for Air New Zealand, part of Baker's job is to lead such a proper trek.

After the Waitakere, Baker and the Maori guides from Navigator Tours herd the travelers back to the home of John Panoho, Navigator marketing director, for tables laden with native foods and a guitar-strumming afternoon featuring popular Maori songs.

"Many of the tourist offerings showcase the Maori in traditional costume, in ancient surroundings, frozen in time," Baker said. He'd rather highlight the Maori sense of humor, candor and manaakitanga, or hospitality.

Any reason to eat, drink and listen to good tunes is fine by me. But Baker and his boss, Air New Zealand CEO Rob Fyfe, say it's more than that.

Baker says he came up with the new position about three years ago.

"The idea came from a genuine desire to add value to the business by enhancing the internal culture of the organization and improving Air New Zealand's brand by infusing the Maori culture into the organization," Baker said.

"We developed the role to help build a closer connection between our staff, the Maori language and our rich cultural heritage," Fyfe said. "Embracing the Maori culture is certainly one way in which we can set ourselves apart."

As the national carrier, he said, "we are often the first face of New Zealand," so he reckons that face should include a Maori profile.

Baker developed an Air New Zealand cultural kit for the airline's front-line employees that includes a DVD and booklet incorporating pronunciation lessons, protocols, legends and stories about the airline's national destinations.

The pack will be available via the carrier's intranet to all 11,000 employees within the next month.

The airline has started Maori elocution lessons for its airport customer service agents and the introduction of Maori greetings to public announcement books for pilots and flight attendants. The onboard airline magazine is titled Kia Ora, a traditional Maori greeting.

The airline also has Te Oho Rere, its own traditional Maori dance group, which performs at almost every major Air New Zealand event.

Indeed, the group, along with a shirtless Fyfe, performed a haka war dance at an international awards ceremony earlier this year in Singapore honoring Air New Zealand service.

But Fyfe's commitment is more than a song and dance. He sees Maoritanga -- things that relate to Maori values and concepts -- as a part of the DNA of his airline and the country it represents. A major Kiwi attribute, he said, is "being yourself," which is one of the airline's branding phrases. There's no way for New Zealanders to do that, he said, without acknowledging the Maori culture as an integral part of the Kiwi makeup.

Baker agreed: "The sense that the Maori culture is a part of our brand, of who we are as a business, is beginning to come through."

Fyfe said that even his commitment to developing sustainable business practices by doing things like testing alternative fuels is consistent with Maori culture and values.

"This vision is captured in the spirit of kaitiakitanga, a Maori concept broadly translated as guardianship," he said. "Kaitiakitanga encourages us to look beyond the strict commercial gains of our environmental initiatives and see the future of the land and our resources in terms of the legacy we pass on to our children and grandchildren."

Just look at the telltale Maori koru design on the tail of an Air Zealand plane, he said.

"To the Maori the koru is a symbol of new life, growth, strength and beauty," Baker said. "The symbol also represents Mango Pare, the hammerhead shark, which was respected for its grace, power, strength and tenacity."

Just the kind of traits you need to survive in today's airline industry.

Email Michael Fabey at [email protected].

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