ACT, National attack Government over back-up plane, but Prime Minister's office says it's justified to ensure trip's success

By Jane Patterson of RNZ

The prime minister and the largest ever delegation to travel to China have been formally welcomed at the New Zealand embassy.

There are plenty of gnarly issues ahead for Chris Hipkins' upcoming meeting with China's top leadership, but as usual the Defence Force plane is already creating headlines.

After several breakdowns causing political embarrassment on previous trips, a second back-up plane was very visible on the trip over, shadowing the main plane on the way up to China - as far as Manila - in case of a breakdown.

ACT and National have criticised the second plane as a waste of money and irresponsible in a climate change crisis.

National's leader Christopher Luxon said there were two problems.

"One is we have a climate change challenge, I thought, in this country - so sending an empty 30-year-old 757 following a full one doesn't seem a good move," he said.

"Secondly ... clearly it's a sign that the Air Force are concerned about the reliability of the first plane and we've seen instances of that now over a number of years."

Deploying the second plane was "ultimately decisions for the government and obviously for the Air Force as well, but it just seemed, ah, inappropriate".

However, he would not commit to replacing the plane earlier than the 2028-2030 timeline currently planned for.

"Again, I just want to go through that, but I'm just telling you obviously the solution isn't working today."

ACT leader David Seymour said the extravagance of sending the second plane was typical of Labour's "wasteful attitude".

"New Zealand's embarrassingly ancient Defence Force planes are so decrepit that the PM has to bring a spare in case one of them breaks down on a stopover," he said.

A spokesperson for the prime minister's office said there was only one Air Force plane in China.

"A backup aircraft pre-positioned in Manila in case of breakdown and did not travel to China. It will now position in Cairns in case needed," the spokesperson said.

"Following a highly publicised series of break downs affected a delegation led by John Key in 2016 Air Force standing orders were updated to provide for backup aircraft, and it is not unusual that in some instances backup aircraft are provided.

"Whether the RNZAF provides backup aircraft is an operational decision based on a combination of factors, such as the importance of the mission and the distance being flown.

"Given the importance of the trade mission, the long distance involved and the large size of the travelling business delegation and media contingent, it was considered that a backup aircraft was justified to ensure the success of the mission to our largest trade partner."

Figures obtained by ACT showed there were 49 "aviation safety occurrences" on the two airforce Boeing 757s, defined as "any incident, malfunction, defect, technical defect or exceedance of limitations that endangers or could endanger the safe operation of an aircraft or parachute" between June 2022 and May 2023.

The cost of maintenance and repairs runs into the tens of millions of dollars - about $33 million since mid-2022.

The prime minister's spokesperson said the 757s were 30 years old, "nearing the end of their economic lives" and were due for replacement between 2028 and 2030.

ACT said its policy was to boost defence spending by committing two percent of GDP to defence spending "to give our brave men and women the tools and resources they need".