Jetstar boss - this is not about revenge

He won his last fight with Air NZ, but the next round will be tougher. Grant Bradley talks to an aviation leader with high-flying goals. Grant Herald story 1 Sept

Today, Jetstar New Zealand boss Grant Kerr will be in a classic car hurtling around a track near Taupo at 200km/h.

The car enthusiast this year learned to race a mate's 1967 Alfa Romeo GTV, and says it clears his mind.

"I guess it's about being able to take your headspace somewhere away from your normal working day," he says.

"You get in that car, you're doing 180-200km/h, you're not thinking about work. You're thinking about the corner you have to get around."

For Kerr, there's a lot to think about right now.

His airline is about to embark on one of the country's biggest moves in domestic aviation in a decade, taking on Air New Zealand in its regional stronghold.

He is about to announce the four new destinations - out of eight that were in the running - and gearing up his airline for major expansion, hiring as many as 100 extra staff.

Kerr - a "Kiwi with an Aussie accent" - started as Jetstar's NZ head after a bruising departure from his former employer, Air New Zealand regional subsidiary Air Nelson.

It ended up in the Employment Court, where Kerr won. In conflicts of evidence, his version of events was preferred by the court and the judge praised him as "particularly impressive and patently honest". But it was a draining ordeal.

"As I look back now, it's good experience to have behind you - it's not something you'd volunteer to do every day."

So is there a tinge of revenge in taking on Air NZ in its lucrative provincial heartland? "Not at all; look, I've moved on," he says.

At a function this month he enjoyed banter with an Air New Zealand executive involved with his case.

But in leading the charge to take on Air New Zealand at its own game, he has poked a bear and the response has already been strong - the rival's lead-in fares have already plunged.

In the travel industry, Kerr is known as one of the good sorts - Air NZ chief executive Christopher Luxon describes him as a lovely guy - but he won't shy away from a tussle. He's gregarious but doesn't chase the spotlight. While warming up for an interview in a cafe near Jetstar's Auckland Airport check-in (no plush executive offices there) he frequently punctuates a sentence with a laugh.

Kerr spent his first 28 years largely in the Outback town of Cunnamulla, population 1200 or so, about 750km west of Brisbane and there's the hint of Aussie larrikin about him. His favourite film is The Castle, he likes a good red wine and despite racing in the Alfa, he's a serious Holden man. He has a 1963 EJ Holden ute (mint colour and condition) and a 1969 Holden Monaro, silver mink in colour.

While he's an adopted Kiwi, he just can't shake supporting the Wallabies.

"I feel I'm accepted in New Zealand but I do struggle from time to time with the rugby," says Kerr.

He arrived 16 years ago for what he thought was a year-long job expanding an electricity lines maintenance company from Queensland. But as a mate predicted, he found a New Zealand woman (Karen) married her and stayed.

He loves the recreation opportunities. Besides his new-found love of car racing, he's keen on mountain biking and is looking forward to a big trek into the Nelson hinterland.

The Energex lines company expansion into small New Zealand towns was a warm-up for Kerr's next moves with Jetstar. He has returned to Nelson to live, and says his rural background helps him understand the needs of places in the running for Jetstar flights.

"I come from the Outback ... so going into these areas it's great to interact with people - they're down to earth and that's me."

Kerr and three other Jetstar staff have just been around the centres bidding for regional services: Hamilton, Tauranga, Rotorua, Napier, New Plymouth, Palmerston North, Nelson and Invercargill.

He says it's been nice to feel so welcomed and he has been impressed by the energy and the diversity of the communities.

"If I had enough aircraft I'd like to go to all eight of them."

Economic potential and the ability to support two airlines are the main criteria for choosing the destinations, to be served by five 50-seater Bombardier Q300s, with the first flights planned for this year.

"For us to go into the regions, we have to know how we can bring growth. It's not about going in and taking a part of the pie that's already there."

The Jetstar executives have been welcomed in the regional towns they've visited, but flying 1.7 million people a year around New Zealand is always going to involve the odd snag. Jetstar started flying domestic routes in 2009 and was roasted for poor punctuality and other slip-ups during its early years.

But it now has a fleet of nine Airbus A320s for its domestic and short-haul international operations and has a schedule enabling it to fly on schedule 90 per cent or better.

Slip-ups happen, and Kerr says that when the airline is at fault, that's when he takes it personally.

"I don't get frustrated for myself, I get frustrated for the customer."

Last week he was holding the Jetstar hotline for Australasia, a job rostered among senior executives to deal with any major issues. It was a quiet week, his only call being a 3.30am briefing on the bombing in Bangkok.

He's now been in the Jetstar job for two years and two weeks.

"It has flown. I look back and think has it really been two years? It's been sensational."


Career highlight? Starting Jetstar regional services.

Personal highlights? Organising a 1000km cycle ride from Brisbane to my home town of Cunnamulla to raise funds to fight cancer. A drive across the Simpson Desert in 1984, plotting my own track.

Book you're reading? Open: An Autobiography by Andre Agassi.

Favourite movie? The Aussie classic The Castle.

Dream holiday destination? To visit one of South Africa's game parks. To see the wild animals in their natural habitat would be fantastic.

Best flight? While working as a linesman flying in a small plane around the Outback, checking hundreds of kilometres of lines at power pole height.

Best advice? From a really good friend of mine - life is short, we're here for a short time, so let's enjoy it.

- NZ Herald