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Backup plane for PM Hipkins' trip more 'unusual' than NZDF claimed

Police and army depart RNZAF Base Auckland for the Solomon Islands on a Royal New Zealand Air Force Boeing 757.
An RNZAF 757 departs for Solomon Islands. Two of the planes were sent to Asia for Chris Hipkins' China trip, with one flying as far as the Philippines as backup. (File photo) Photo: Supplied / New Zealand Defence Force

The Defence Force has conceded Prime Minister Chris Hipkins' trip to China was the first time it had sent along a dedicated backup plane, despite earlier defending the practice as "nothing unusual".

The decision last month to send a second Boeing 757 to Asia in case the first broke down attracted international attention and strong criticism from National and ACT, who described it as a source of national embarrassment.

At the time, a spokesperson for Hipkins defended having a Plan B to ensure the mission's success.

"It is not unusual for the Air Force to provide backup aircraft, where available. This has occurred more frequently following a highly publicised series of breakdowns affected a delegation led by [former prime minister] John Key in 2016."

A Defence Force (NZDF) spokesperson also told RNZ the practice was "nothing unusual".

On further questioning by RNZ, however, the spokesperson could cite just two other instances since 2016 when aircraft were "officially tasked as backups" for prime ministerial travel - and neither were ultimately used for that purpose.

In November 2022, a second 757 was placed on standby for then-prime minister Jacinda Ardern to travel to Cambodia for the East Asia Summit. However, the plane never left New Zealand.

Two Hercules were also designated official backup aircraft for Hipkins' trip to Papua New Guinea for the United States-Pacific Islands Forum in May. One stayed behind in New Zealand, however, and the other was already travelling to PNG for other purposes.

The NZDF spokesperson initially told RNZ there were seven instances when backup planes were provided for prime ministerial transport but after further inquiry said that was an error. On five of those occasions, spare aircraft could "potentially" have been made available but were not officially allocated that role.

"Had a backup been required, they may well have been tasked," the spokesperson said. "Apologies for the error."

Asked to explain his earlier comments, a spokesperson for Hipkins said they had been based on NZDF advice.

Speaking last month, National leader Christopher Luxon described sending a back-up plane as a waste of money, and irresponsible during a climate change crisis.

Luxon personally vowed not to use the "ancient aircraft" to travel internationally if elected as prime minister, saying he would instead pursue commercial or charter options.

Acting Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni at the time said that would be much more expensive and so "not fiscally prudent". The Labour government said the NZDF planes also had other benefits such as security and the ability to travel unusual routes.

The twin 757s - purchased second-hand in 2003 - are also used for NZDF operations including training pilots and transporting troops and supplies. They are now about 30 years old but are not due to be replaced until 2028-2030.

Both Key and Ardern have faced political embarrassment due to the faulty aircraft breaking down during official international travel.

In 2016, Key was forced to cut his visit to India short after the 757 carrying him and his delegation broke down during a stopover in Australia, a situation he described as "suboptimal".

Three years later, Ardern had to purchase commercial flights back to Auckland from Melbourne when the 757 would not take off. The same happened again in Washington DC in May last year.

The Defence Force's even older fleet of Hercules planes have also caused problems: Ardern was left stranded in Antarctica in October last year due to a mechanical problem. She had to hitch a ride back to Christchurch on an Italian plane instead.