Leading through change – with Auckland Airport chief Carrie Hurihanganui

Carrie Hurihanganui became Chief Executive of Auckland Airport in February 2022, a time of unprecedented change for tourism and aviation as New Zealand’s border began to reopen after the Covid-19 pandemic. Ahead of her appearance at the Futurespace conference, we talk to Carrie about leading through change.  

Carrie Hauihanganui

Originally from the US, Carrie Hurihanganui set foot in New Zealand three decades ago for what she thought would be a brief holiday. But fate had other plans, and she’s called Aotearoa home ever since.

Her career in the airline and travel industry started with Air New Zealand in 1999, working as international flight crew to support her university studies. Armed with a Bachelor of Business Studies from Massey University and further studies at Harvard, she transitioned into various roles, both in the air and on the ground.

“These experiences, from retrofitting aircraft interiors to leading cabin crew in NZ, London and Shanghai, offered me a unique perspective on the industry.

“I eventually worked my way up to the role of Chief Operating Officer, overseeing diverse teams of more than 9,000 people and the intricate workings of the aviation world.

“Now, at Auckland Airport, it’s this wealth of experience that I draw on to steer us through current industry challenges.”

Carrie joined Auckland Airport during a period of unprecedented change – from closed borders to the post-pandemic recovery of the aviation and tourism industries. What have been the biggest challenges, and how does she lead her team during times of great change?

“Joining Auckland Airport during a period of such significant change has been a stimulating journey. The uncertainty surrounding travel restrictions and shifting consumer behaviours posed significant hurdles. However, it was precisely these challenges that provided us with an opportunity to redefine our strategies and adapt for the future.

“When faced with uncertainty and transformation, I believe in fostering an environment of open and transparent communication. By encouraging my team to embrace change as an opportunity for growth and innovation, and involving them in the decision-making process, we have been able to tap into a diverse range of perspectives and expertise to come up with the right solutions together.”

How does she think the need for sustainability and the Government’s “value over volume” proposal can be balanced with growth in the aviation and tourism sectors?  

“I support appropriate aviation industry growth, but also firmly believe that innovation and sustainability can walk hand-in-hand, creating a pathway that benefits both our industry and the environment.

“The aviation sector has a unique role to play in driving economic development and fostering cultural exchange. It's a catalyst for job creation, trade and global connections that contribute significantly to the prosperity of New Zealand as a geographically isolated nation. While we support a thriving tourism industry and trade, it’s crucial that we do so responsibly. Airports are decarbonising and embracing sustainable practices, not only in relation to our infrastructure projects, but also in how we support the decarbonisation of aviation more broadly. We all need to work together to make progress as an ecosystem.”

As the first female chief executive of Auckland Airport, Carrie herself could be called a disruptor. How has it been stepping into the role as the first female CE in the airport’s history?

“It’s been incredibly fulfilling. The role has allowed me to bring a fresh perspective to the table and ultimately contribute to the airport's continued growth and success.

“I'm fortunate to work alongside a dedicated team that values diversity and inclusivity. Although I may be the first female CE, our board and senior leadership team also has strong female representation. All of us seek to foster an environment where collaboration and creating opportunities is at its core, enabling us to tackle whatever comes our way.

“Ultimately, my focus remains on driving positive change, nurturing a culture of excellence, and ensuring that Auckland Airport remains a vital and sustainable hub for connectivity, economic development, and memorable travel experiences within Aotearoa.”

Carrie Hurihanganui will join One NZ Chief People Officer Jodie King and Wellington City Council Chief Infrastructure Officer Siobhan Procter on stage at Futurespace for ‘Fireside chat with the chiefs’ to discuss how they have handled disruption, adapted to change and come through the challenges unique to their companies over the last few years.

Read more about Futurespace and get tickets