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HomeWorldNew Zealand PM grounded again as defence force fleet flies into trouble

New Zealand PM grounded again as defence force fleet flies into trouble

New Zealand prime minister Christopher Luxon was forced to travel on a last-minute commercial flight to Australia for a summit on Tuesday, after the country’s beleaguered defence force plane was once again grounded over maintenance issues.

The defence force loans planes to New Zealand leaders when they embark on international travel, but the ageing fleet has been plagued with problems in recent years – an issue that Luxon, the former chief executive of Air New Zealand, has previously labelled “incredibly embarrassing”.

Former prime ministers Dame Jacinda Ardern and Sir John Key have both been grounded during trips around the world after RNZAF Boeing 757s and Hercules aircraft broke down. Last year, former prime minister Chris Hipkins was forced to bring a backup plane on a trip to China, over fears the plane he was travelling on was unreliable.

Luxon was scheduled to depart on the NZDF 757 from Wellington airport at 6am on Tuesday. Instead, he had to scramble to catch a flight to Auckland before transferring to a commercial trans-Tasman flight to Melbourne for the Asean summit, Radio New Zealand reported.

The prime minister is attending his first international gathering of leaders, after accepting an invitation from Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese. Luxon missed two bilateral meetings due to the travel delays.

Boeing was contacted for comment, but referred the Guardian back to the defence force.

In a statement, a defence force spokesperson said the Boeing 757 flew to Wellington on Monday 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,” they said. “Flight safety remains paramount and the crew and engineers are working hard to rectify the issue.”

Its second 757 is in Christchurch undergoing scheduled maintenance and was unavailable as back up.

With each breakdown, there are calls to bring forward a scheduled replacement of the 757s, which is due later this decade.

Acting National leader and finance minister Nicola Willis, said the incident was “not ideal” while suggesting plans to replace the aircraft were unlikely to be brought forward.

“The number one priority isn’t getting politicians to meetings. The number one priority is working well with our partners internationally to ensure we can defend our country and our interests,” she said.

Defence minister Judith Collins said the defence force does “an enormously good job with very, very old kit”.

“Essentially you’re talking about classic cars, but it’s planes,” she said.

“It’s an engineering issue … it’s embarrassing, it’s difficult. But every time we this happens we talk about the need for alternatives and every time we look at it it’s so expensive and frankly we’re in a cost of living crisis.”

In 2022, Ardern was left stranded in Antarctica overnight after a Hercules broke down. A 757 broke down on Ardern’s official visit to the US in 2022, and she took a commercial flight home from Melbourne in 2019 after another engineering issue. A trade mission to India headed by Key in 2016 was cut short after a 757 was grounded in Townsville, forcing the prime minister and his entourage to stay the night while they waited for a backup plane.

Opposition leader Chris Hipkins said Labour would not argue with the government if it wanted to replace the craft ahead of time.

“If they decide to upgrade the 757s, they’d have my support,” he said.

Australian Associated Press contributed to this report

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