Smooth operator: How Air NZ's Alex Marren takes on the turbulence – New Zealand Herald

Deputy Editor – Business
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Alex Marren is used to being in the eye of the storm.
She’s Air New Zealand’s chief operating officer and this weekend the airline will be stretched with full flights and limited margin for
Passenger numbers are up 77 per cent on this time last year and Marren is fronting the airline’s plea for patience as full flights mean long queues, delays and growing piles of lost bags.
The job of rebuilding an airline during a pandemic to meet surging demand is a new and particularly gnarly problem. Demand is running at or above pre-Covid levels but resources aren’t. Marren, who started work at Air New Zealand in April as travel started to take off, has been at the centre of the worst crises in aviation.
She takes the same approach to getting planes flying around New Zealand on a busy summer day to what she did in the crisis centre of United Airlines during the 9/11 terror attacks, then at the heart of the resulting sudden collapse in US airlines, and as boss of an airline servicing company when Covid-19 first hit and the financial impact was broader and deeper.
For Marren it’s about applying a calm, methodical approach based on decades of working in every corner of the airline industry. She’s also got a drive to keep learning.
And, importantly for any airline staffer, she’s never lost that romantic attraction to the wonder of flight.
She vividly recalls first feeling that as a girl going to her parents’ homeland.
“I flew to Greece aged 6 and I was super fascinated by that TWA 747 flying into Athens. It’s one of those feelings that sticks with you your whole life, that connection of people and what the airline did to bring that about.”
Her big high school science experiment was demonstrating how planes fly and years later she’s still amazed by how it happens.
“It’s still a miracle for me. How you’re up at 30,000 feet and you’re having a cup of tea and your Wi-Fi. And that does still excite me.”

It’s still a miracle for me. How you’re up at 30,000 feet and you’re having a cup of tea and your Wi Fi. And that does still excite me
Her parents moved to the United States as Greece struggled in the aftermath of World War II, in pursuit of jobs and opportunity. The family lived in Boston where her father was in the restaurant business and she was instilled with values that haven’t left her.
“They were big believers in education and hard work – those were the ethics I grew up with.”
A high school valedictorian, she got into Harvard where she studied American history and science.
“Obviously for my Dad, who died when I was 20, it was great because he was such a believer in education and I was first in my family to go to college.”
She has a younger brother and sister.
When she was 14 she worked in a bakery, a library, and in college studied real estate.
“I always wanted to learn and do more. I tell people I mentor to get the experience and one thing will lead to another, see what you like, see what you’re good at and play to your strengths‚” she says.
She got her first taste of airlines at what she calls an unusual startup, PEOPLExpress, born out of industry deregulation in the United States and a low-cost carrier pioneer.
It was an all-hands-to-the-pump operation based out of Newark where pilots would help load bags and commercial staff would work on check-in.
“They were the boom days of aviation where the growth was just exponential. I worked in customer service, loading bags, pushing planes and was trained as a flight attendant. I worked the line on Sarasota to Buffalo flights – they were full aircraft.”
The airline operated planes from Boeing 727s to 747s but ended up growing too quickly, struck financial problems and Continental bought it out.
“It was a great four-year experience learning all the different aspects from a frontline perspective.”
That’s when she joined United Airlines (UA) where she ended up working for 25 years.
For the first 14 years she worked in the field, and started at O’Hare Airport, United’s Chicago hub.
It was known as “the university” for UA.
She worked on customer service, ran the budget for a vice-president and got to know the financial side of the business.
“It cost US$200m ($318m) at the time to run O’Hare but we knew where every dollar was spent. We set up a pretty good structure there so everybody could feed in and see what the opportunities [were].”
Airline operations are a cost centre “so you always have to look at how you’re going to do things smarter”.
In the early 1990s Marren got a big break. She was asked to start up a new operation and become the country manager in Greece, where she stayed for two-and-a-half years.
She oversaw all aspects of an operation – legal, accounting, sales and reservations, as well as airport operations.
“It was a fantastic experience professionally to do the start-up. It was very helpful that I could speak Greek.”
In the general business community, English was common but at the airport it was mainly Greek. Her Irish-American husband Patrick, who she met at college, learned to speak the language while in Athens and she got to meet more than 30 first cousins.
Back in the US she ran Dulles Airport at Washington DC, and following a reorganisaton ended up running sales and airports for the whole of New England.
She says she’s always been shoulder-tapped for roles, apart from one when she asked to move from the field to United’s headquarters.
“I was curious to find out how airlines work behind the scenes.”
She headed up the airline’s development and rollout of kiosks at airports.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, when heading customer service planning of airports, she was on her way to work when the world changed.
“I had a big meeting that day in Chicago – I was driving to the office and having a big meeting with hub managers who were in for the day talking about new technology,” she says.
“On the radio, I heard about a plane hitting the World Trade Center – by the time I got to the office 10 minutes later it had materialised that it was one of United’s planes.”
She was in the airline’s specially-trained emergency response team based in an amphitheatre, where the head of safety ran point and all parts of the airline were represented.
“When it happened we didn’t know whether it was an isolated incident or widespread. So the first reaction by the FAA (Federal Aviation Authority) was to ground everything. Thousands of planes were grounded and we were validating whether the planes in the air were okay.”
Hijacked United Airlines and American Airlines planes were flown into the twin towers. Another American Airlines plane was flown into the Pentagon and a United plane crashed into a field in Pennsylvania after passengers fought back against hijackers.
“I liaised very closely with our humanitarian response team. There are very detailed protocols around contacting the family members. We assigned one individual to liaise with that family for that entire period, the passengers and crew members.”
When it happened we didn’t know whether it was an isolated incident or widespread
Marren liaised closely with the FBI and other agencies as the entire fleet was grounded and aviation shut down for three days. There were thousands of passengers stranded all around the world.
To cope with a deep and developing crisis it was a matter of working through rehearsed processes.
“It was helping getting the right people together. We stood up a side group that was just for airports so we had some of the key managers and some of the planning team,” she says.
“It was a lot of triaging, we would meet throughout the course of the day trying to help everybody work together through this.”
There were new problems to deal with at every turn.
“I remember our Boston team was traumatised because one of their people got on out of there, so it was about getting support to help them,” she says.
For three weeks, she slept in a flight attendant dorm nearby and worked with others on a rotation basis until the emergency phase of the crisis eased.
“Then of course you have the aftermath, which was massive – people weren’t flying.”
International Air Transport Association figures show it took four years for US passenger traffic to recover. Total industry losses between 2001 and 2005 totalled NZ$64 billion.
United Airlines filed for bankruptcy in 2002 and it was four years before it was out of its Chapter 11 protection. Marren says it was the end of the decade when airlines started getting profitable again, the 2010 mega-merger between United and Continental helping.
She was tapped to run the merged United and Continental operation centre and regional carriers.
She oversaw about 5000 flights a day between the regional and the main line carriers and a total fleet of 1400 in the ops centre on the 27th floor of Chicago’s Willis Tower. There were 400 seats for staff from across all aspects of making airlines run.
“No one person has full visibility into what’s happening on a situation. It was really about bringing people together to make the right decisions.”
There would be debriefs every Wednesday on challenges and what could be learned from them to do better next time.
It’s changed in the 36 years she’s been working in airlines, and when Marren started there were fewer women.
“I didn’t think about [that], I just did what I loved to do. I mean, there were some [men] who were a little tougher than others, but over time you just get figured out how to work together,” she says.
“When I went to Greece, I was actually worried about it because it tended to be more male-orientated, but they had actually come a long way from when I was a kid and there were a lot of women in politics and middle management.”
For anyone thinking about a career in aviation, she cautions that it’s a relentless, complex business, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
“It’s not for the faint-hearted. You can thrive on that but that’s not necessarily for everyone.”
Depending on the size of the aircraft, anywhere between 24 and 40 people are involved in getting a flight away on time.
About three years into the merger, she was looking for something new.
“I like to learn and grow in my career so I decided to leave and I ended up as the chief operating officer at SkyWest Airlines.”
She ran the jet operation for SkyWest which contracts to the big US carriers and in 2021 carried 36 million passengers.
Then came a break from airlines, headhunted by a former United boss to join Hertz in the US.
“My main focus there was trying to improve the service level and it was a fantastic experience.”
She went back to planes just before the pandemic hit, as president of ABM Aviation in Atlanta, leading a team of more than 11,000 to service airlines at airports across the US, UK, Ireland and the Middle East through the Covid pandemic.
That may have been her last job, leading ABM out of the devastating impact of the pandemic, but she was shoulder-tapped for the COO role at Air New Zealand and couldn’t resist.
Former United executive Larry De Shon is on the Air NZ board.
“It was a headhunting thing. The aviation space isn’t that big.”
She’s visited the country before, loved what she saw and the opportunity to help an airline rebuild following the devastation wrought by Covid-19.
The airline’s commitment to developing technology was also a drawcard.
“I’m a big advocate or believer in leveraging technology to do things better. And that’s really what appealed to me tremendously here and talking to the team at Air New Zealand.”
She started work in April, and after a stuttering start the airline rebuild has been rapid to meet surging demand from travellers wanting to reconnect with families or business colleagues, or go on holidays.
In the space of 12 months, the number of passengers has soared from 1.1 million to 2.8 million. Training times have been cut but with Covid still impacting the airline, it’s a rocky climb out of the pandemic.
“We still have some uncertainties out there. The Covid sickness is a little bit like guerilla warfare – it pops up all over the place and if it happens in the training centre that’s a big issue.”
How does this compare to previous challenges she’s faced in her 36-year career?
“It’s all relative to the scale, (I’m) learning where are the pockets that are best in class and what are the pockets that we need to focus on from an operational perspective.”
Alex Marren and husband Patrick would do well in a best auntie and uncle contest.
“We’re not fortunate to have kids but we have 24 nephews and nieces – 19 boys and five girls,” she says.
“We have a little tradition that when they graduate high school we take them to wherever they want to go in the world for a week.”
It can get busy. Two years ago three of them graduated in the same year. They’re also wanting to go further afield, as trips to Europe have replaced trips around the US.
She has a cruisy gait and a relaxed manner to match. She played basketball and volleyball when she was young and rowed while at university.
To prove she could do it, she ran a marathon (in Anchorage, Alaska) but nowadays it’s more sedate, hiking around Auckland at the weekend.
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