Putting the record straight

The NBR Rich Lister on his ejection from an Air New Zealand flight. PLUS: Special feature audio: Sir Bob unloads on NBR Radio.

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Twice in successive weeks recently, I slammed the New Zealand media’s ludicrous behaviour in two New Zealand Herald satirical columns, over their infantile excesses following the ponytail incident. How ironic then that a few weeks later I should be the subject of their obsession with trivia. Here’s what happened.

I shot up to Auckland for a vice-chancellor’s university function, in my honour. As I’ve done countless times, I gave my ticket to the always helpful Koru Club ladies who set about re-organising me into the big leg room emergency seat and, if possible, and as indeed in that case, with no-one besides me.  On the flight I was greeted by one of Air New Zealand’s most charming chief stewards, a Chinese chap, took my seat, donned my air phones to avoid the unbelievably childish safety claptrap, and had a pleasant 50 minutes' read. 

The following day at Auckland saw a repetition, marked by one of the X-ray machine officers shaking hands with me, saying he hadn’t seen me for a while. Such is the usual friendly conduct I and doubtless other regular Auckland-Wellington are accustomed to. Once again, I took my seat, donned my earphones and settled into my book, of which more shortly. There was a tap on my shoulder. I looked up to see a young hostess frowning at me and, assuming it was the usual seat forward silliness, pushed the side button and returned to reading. She tapped again.  I took off the headphones. 

“You’re in the emergency seat.”


“Do you know you’re in the emergency seat?”


“Do you want to change seats?”

“Not particularly.”

She then disappeared and I resumed reading.  Then came another tap. This time a grim-faced woman of about 60 was glaring at me.  We went through the same rigmarole only she then commanded me, the first such occasion in countless times in that seat, and I’ll wager, the first such time ever, to turn to the wall and read the instructions.  I did so, and turned back and, with another glare, she started to walk away. “Childish,” I remarked to the chap beside me.  She heard me, spun around and snapped, “I’ll get the captain.” “OK,” I said and resumed reading. Twenty minutes later a couple of security guards appeared so I left with them.

There was a smattering of applause, I assume from people frustrated at the delay, this predictably, subsequently reported as mass cheering. I’m told the captain then announced that safety was their foremost concern. The only safety threat, once the doors closed, was of everyone drowning in his extreme wetness. 

What then happened was an abrupt reversal. I was greeted by a certain senior ground official, plainly disgusted at what had occurred, who took my ticket and said they would have me on another flight in a flash. Half an hour later I boarded again for the usual trouble-free, head-phoned trip south, there absurdly to encounter the camera crew half-wits en masse.

People assumed I’d made a fuss. Not so, for a very good reason. In Auckland I had purchased a recently published Epicurus book, this written by a classicist unconvincingly arguing that financial collapses would become a standard event in future and that, unless we adopt Epicurean principles, we’re doomed. In particular he homed in on what he considered the real victims of the hard-driven market economy; the unskilled underclass who, in the highly stratified modern economy, were reduced to utterly tedious repetitious work. I was musing over that when the grim-faced hostess arrived and I realised she epitomised the author’s point. Decades of mindlessly pouring tea and coffee but a uniform and by God she was bent on using it and taking her misery out on me. Even if not very bright she should have worked harder at school back in the 1960s.  Perhaps she realised that and the sight of me engrossed in a book incensed her.

That afternoon in the Wellington office the manager came in. He’d just had an email from our managing director, then in New York. “That puts paid to it,” he wrote. “We’ll definitely buy a private jet.” This something is we’ve been considering. And so we shall. I’ve had enough of Air New Zealand’s infantilism.

POSTSCRIPT – I’ve had numerous calls from senior journalist friends saying that someone called Pattrick Smellie claimed I made a fuss. Their uniform response was that, if Smellie said that, then I must have been in a coma. Take heed of the nearby passenger who commented publicly that all I wanted was to read my book and I was being deliberately pestered.

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