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Ministers slate Defence Force Boeing plane breakdown as ‘embarrassing’ after PM Chris Luxon makes his own way to Australia

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The Defence Force says problems with a Boeing 757′s nose landing gear grounded the aircraft this morning, delaying Prime Minister Christopher Luxon’s trip to Australia.

Government ministers say the breakdown of the Defence Force Boeing is “embarrassing” and results in “pitying looks” from foreign politicians – but no moves are on the cards to speed up replacing them.

An NZDF spokesperson said the aircraft flew to Wellington yesterday in preparation for today’s flight and was serviceable on landing.

“During the pre-flight checks this morning, crew became aware of a technical fault with the nose landing gear system. Flight safety remains paramount and the crew and engineers are working hard to rectify the issue.

“The RNZAF’s second Boeing 757 is in Christchurch on scheduled maintenance and is therefore unavailable.”

Luxon had to take a last-minute commercial flight for his trip to Melbourne to meet Asean leaders today. The Boeing was still on the ground by 11am as maintenance crew worked to narrow down and fix what has been described as a major electrical fault.

Media travelling with Luxon were also grounded. The NZDF was hopeful the plane would make it to Australia today to bring Luxon back to New Zealand tomorrow.

However, it’s now been established that the Boeing 757 will not be flying to Melbourne today. The fault requires a specific piece of technology to be sent from Auckland.

It means Luxon is now likely to return commercially.

Speaking on the way into caucus this morning, Defence Minister Judith Collins said the situation was “embarrassing”, but there was no money to replace the planes soon.

Asked if other countries’ politicians laughed at New Zealand when its planes broke down, she said: “I don’t think they’re that cruel to our face.

“But they do give us those pitying looks, which is very annoying. But, you know, my moment’s annoyance should not be paid for by the taxpayers.”

Collins said it was not sustainable to keep the planes going in the longer term and she had brought forward a review of the capability of the Defence Force from September to June.

“The Defence Force has been doing very good work with very, very old kit. These are over 30 years old, and it’s simply not sustainable in the long term. We know we need them to have better kit and it’s a matter of money. I haven’t got the money.

“We are in a cost-of-living crisis. We don’t have, frankly, the money that we need to put in place [to put] those sorts of assets right at the moment.”

She said New Zealanders might well also feel it was embarrassing.

“A moment’s embarrassment is really difficult, but nothing like the fact we are in a cost-of-living crisis. Right now, you’ve got to read the room.”

The cost of replacing the planes would run into hundreds of millions of dollars and even leasing aircraft would be expensive, she said.

She drew a comparison with classic cars, saying they, too, had a high maintenance cost.

Finance Minister Nicola Willis says priorities should be considered when assessing what Defence Force assets should be upgraded first. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Finance Minister Nicola Willis says priorities should be considered when assessing what Defence Force assets should be upgraded first. Photo / Mark Mitchell

National deputy leader and Finance Minister Nicola Willis accepted the plane’s breakdown was “not ideal” and she sympathised with journalists who might be unable to report on Luxon’s movements in Australia.

She disagreed when asked whether the plane’s woes made New Zealand look like a backwater country.

Willis believed it was important to assess the future of the Defence Force and what assets it needed, noting its priority was defending New Zealand, not getting the prime minister to meetings.

Police Minister Mark Mitchell – a former Defence Minister – also said it was disappointing the plane had broken down and Luxon had to make his own way to Australia and miss some important meetings.

“Of course it’s embarrassing. I don’t know what it is, whether it needs a better maintenance programme – that’s a matter for Defence.”

He said it was not his call whether the planes should be replaced. The Defence Force would be looking at why it couldn’t keep the planes in the air.

Labour leader Chris Hipkins supported replacing the 757s.

“I think it’s time that we did look at the 757, bearing in mind that the VIP travel is actually only a very small component of what they do.

“If [the Government] decided to upgrade the 757, they’ll have my support.”

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