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Service in the skies

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Service in the skies

Eating and drinking on board has been an important part of the flying experience ever since the first passenger spent more than a couple of hours in the air. Air New Zealand predecessor, Tasman Empire Airways Ltd (TEAL) led the way with the provision of first-rate meals in sometimes trying conditions.

A fresh pot of tea

In the first years of TEAL's trans-Tasman route and later the Coral Route, on-board dining was a notable feature. "The food was all cooked on board from scratch by the junior steward," says former hostess Janet Beech.

"We were the first airline in the world to boil water too." (It had been believed that water would not boil at high altitudes but this was disproved by the simple experiment of boiling some.)

Performing culinary miracles in confined spaces was standard.

Air New Zealand archives.

There was scrambled eggs and toast for breakfast, salad-type meals and seafood cocktails made in a billy. Hot meals were prepared on board as well as morning and afternoon tea with canapé​s. The drinks served were miniature sized.

Flying boats had two decks, accessed via a circular staircase. There was a dumb waiter but "it didn't always work". 

Service with a smile

Service can make or break a meal; cabin crew have long known this. "We tried to overlay the best qualities of the average Kiwi - naturalness, warmth and approachability ... the sort of service you would get at your neighbour's barbecue party on a Sunday," said Dennis Marshall, who was head of cabin services in later years.

The legendary cabin service manager of the day, Eric Mullane, had a reputation for prickliness but there was a side to him that many cabin crews only found out about later. "We knew we got corned beef on board," says Beech, "but we didn't know that Eric's wife cooked it. And we knew we got cake from Adams Bruce, but we didn't realise that Eric picked it up from the shop in Queen St on his way to work and took it down to Mechanics Bay."

It was that devotion to the job and the passengers that set the standard that has been maintained to this day.

A new pace

The jet era began for TEAL when it took delivery of its first Electra in 1959 but they were not sufficient to to meet the company's ambitious plans for long-term growth. The DC-8 gave Air New Zealand the ability to fly to the United States, Singapore and Hong Kong. The bigger jets meant there were more passengers to be served. And for shorter flights there was less time for the leisurely service that had been the practice in the past.

The quality of the service remained a priority. First class inflight service could rival anything to be found on the ground.

Air New Zealand archives.


Air New Zealand tableware completed the picture. In 1965, Crown Lynn supplied a turquoise dinnerset, featuring a Māori design inspired by a carving from Auckland Museum. Pieces included salt and pepper shakers, cups and saucers, oval and round plates and butter dishes.

West Auckland company, Crown Lynn, designed a striking dinner set for Air New Zealand in 1965.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. K5231, 1987.194 and K4769, 1986.51.

Cocktails were served in ceramic beakers in the 1970s.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. K4835.

The West Auckland company continued to design ceramics for Air New Zealand. First-class passengers in the 1970s and 1980s were served drinks in ceramic 'cocktail beakers'.

By then TEAL and Air New Zealand had been flying routes in the Pacific for more than 20 years, and etched on the base of the beakers the airline proudly proclaimed 'Air New Zealand knows the South Pacific best'.

Brought to you by

High-profile sponsorship activities have been a successful brand-marketing exercise for Air New Zealand, as well as ensuring world-class cuisine. The carrier has sponsored the Air New Zealand Wine Awards for nearly three decades.

And with top New Zealand chef Peter Gordon overseeing the menu (which includes meals such as lamb shank with golden kumara mash and seared hapuka in miso coconut broth), Air New Zealand can continue to pride itself on providing meals that won't be dismissed cursorily as merely "airline food".​

Cite this article

Keith, Michael. Service in the skies. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 12 April 2016. Updated: 12 May 2016.

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