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International aviation doyen David Bell farewelled at virus-depleted funeral in Sydney.

April 9, 2020 Obituaries No Comments Email Email

Just a month short of 80, David’s extraordinary career was celebrated by his immediate family and a virtual horde of aviation journalists and travel trade luminaries yesterday.

The long time Cathay Pacific PR chief started in Australian television’s emerging years in Melbourne and Adelaide working the studio floor, and later in programming for Rupert Murdoch’s foray into in TV in Wollongong.

Surrounded by celebrity and entertainment, his career took sharp turn when he was asked to join New Zealand’s flag-carrying airline, emerging from its chrysalis as a regional carrier looking to change its name, size and scope.

As 1965 dawned in NZ, its national airline had a few more than 400 employees, three Lockheed Electras carting punters cheerfully across the Tasman and South Pacific, and a rich pioneering heritage garnered over 25 years.

In a wild leap into the 20th century TEAL’s board announced a new name – Air New Zealand –  jet aeroplanes and route expansion into Asia and the US. The excitement must be shared; journalists must be hired to spread the news.

David was recruited to come to Auckland.

His arrival at the head office PR department must have been a culture shock like day one at a Cambodian re-education camp: we four journos recently hired, aviation writers from NZ’s metro dailies, shared a dingy, linseed-oily space above a paint and wallpaper shop opposite Airways House, the airline’s HQ.

The bloke from Australia, walked into what was essentially a print newsroom; it smelled like one, carried on like one and treated non-print types like infidels at the gates of Medina.

Technology? Hefty old Imperials loaded with blue ribbons to type on pale green paper (aircraft livery colours were turquoise and royal blue), and a wind-the-handle Gestetner to produce the smudgy releases which descended on NZ’s newspapers in a constant leaflet raid, and received with dwindling  enthusiasm.

For David, handicapped by an assumed glitzy TV background in Orstralia of all places, hired somehow by someone without the depthless street-smarts that imbue inky-fingered ambulance chasers, it was a step into a regimen of frenzied days then swilling warmish beer in that chaotic hour before 6pm in tile and lino pub nearby  in a country that celebrated its inferiority complex in any way possible.

It was a hard start. I know: his desk was next to mine. He became a cheerful chum.

His Australian background meant that he knew there was a wider path to a customer’s dollar than exhilarating press releases about air-freighting frozen fish to the Sydney market, and that a buck gleaned through targeted promotion was just as valuable as any other.

He knew that PR was an important marketing component, but there were others, crucial to the mix at a time of rapid development, and that those opportunities needed more attention than they were getting.

His previous experience, and natural people skills allowed him to shine in a company that was growing like Topsy as it drew new hires from the global aviation industry and drastically changing its fundamental character as an airline.

His time in Auckland would have discouraged a lesser being, but it gave him a pressure-cooked grounding in aviation. So armed, he carried the airline’s flag in Hong Kong in 1966 to make sure that both trade and travelling public knew that the Kiwi DC-8’s passengers were now enjoying the thrill of a Kai Tak landing.

Services to Singapore, also from Auckland via Sydney, started at the same time significantly widening his patch. It also meant crossing paths with Siew Chia exercising her own singular personal skills running the airline’s front-of-house airport operations there.

Later, as Mrs Siew Bell, she and David became a formidable social asset in Hong Kong first for Air New Zealand before turning down a recall to Auckland in 1971 and later for two years with the Hong Kong Tourist Association  promoting shopping and sampans.

A chance remark at a function saw him join the Swire group’s Cathay Pacific operations in 1973.

Already a seasoned PR operative guiding an airline through a hectic expansion phase, he shepherded CX through an 11-aircraft, 14-destination regional’s growth into a respected international carrier  with a 46-aircraft fleet, eventually serving a Hong Kong-Gatwick route.

His quiet diplomacy and international reputation was forged within the Swire family ethos, old English establishment  deeply rooted in Asia alongside Jardine Matheson and their ilk.

In 1992, Australia called him home.

Ken Morton, having been with BA in London and Air New Zealand’s head of public affairs, ran into David at the 747-400 and 737-400 launch in Seattle. They had much in common: Morton took over Cathay’s PR operation in Australia in the early 1990’s.

Morton’s eulogy at the funeral quoted veteran HK journalist Kevin Sinclair’s tribute to David: “I never pass up on the opportunity to travel with David Bell. You know everything will be well organised, there will be a good story in it – and always a glass of decent red.”

In his “retirement”, David took on the development of the Willoughby Road shopping precinct, the Crows Nest Mainstreet program turning the street into a haven of kerb-side dining, green spaces and civic amenities.

But the Cathay days weren’t over, the airline calling him back late in 2000 to take up where Ken Morton had left off to join Boeing, continuing to gain the respect travel journalists of every stripe, many of whose emailed tributes, memories and condolences crowded into Ken’s eulogy.

His later years were marked for his efforts as host and organiser of ATUS (All The Usual Suspects) a convocation of travel and aviation types meeting for lunch at the slightest provocation. Its numbers dwindle with age, but members will gather again – just as soon people can get together again.

David is survived by Siew, sons Richard and Nicolas and daughter Caroline, whose son Jack, now 16 months old is one of the best known toddlers around the Lower North Shore’s restaurants and pubs: his grandfather taking personal care of his PR among any chums standing still long enough to see a photo or hear the latest story.

-Peter Davidson.

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