Political turbulence as PM takes diverted flight
ANDREA VANCE AND KIRSTY JOHNSTON
National's leader John Key says he was preparing to spend the night in New Plymouth when Air New Zealand called to say they had diverted a plane.
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Key's transport arrangements have created a minor political storm on the last day of campaigning with Labour and Mana accusing him of seeking special treatment.
He is on a two-day trip through the North Island but took a plane home to Auckland last night while the campaign bus continued to Taupo. His original flight was cancelled and another diverted to New Plymouth.
Key said today he got ''great treatment'', but it was the airline's policy to divert a plane if it could pick passengers up ''within 20-odd minutes'' rather than leaving them stranded overnight.
He said his delegation was four or five out of the seven who boarded the plane in New Plymouth.
''I understand from time-to-time it happens, a number of passengers got on the plane, not just the people who were with me.''
The Prime Minister's spokeswoman said his team expected to get on an 8.45pm flight after an earlier flight was delayed.
They were telephoned by Air New Zealand to say that flight was cancelled and a plane was being diverted.
Mana party candidate Sue Bradford said a stewardess told passengers to ''vote National''.
''We got up to Auckland and the stewardess who was in control of the cabin - I know her pretty well, I've had lots of flights with her," Key said.
''She was finishing her PA and I said to her 'party vote Nation, party vote National' and she said 'John wants you to vote for him'."
''If Sue Bradford doesn't like if, well she needs to get a sense of humour in my view.''
He said he was surprised when the airline rang. ''We didn't ask for it... we were quite relaxed about staying in New Plymouth overnight.''
It had never happened to him before.
''I fly Air New Zealand virtually every day and that's the first time I've had a flight cancelled.''
He wasn't aware the airline was playing the Feelers' Stand up and be counted - National's campaign song - as passengers boarded its planes.
''Good on them,'' he said.
The airline confirmed a flight from New Plymouth to Auckland was cancelled yesterday due to engineering reasons. Air NZ spokeswoman Hayley McCrystal said a Nelson flight was re-routed to pick up seven passengers.
Air New Zealand spokesman Mark Street said in a statement the diversion took 20 minutes, including a five-minute delay when it left Nelson.
"While on their way to Auckland the flight attendant responded to some light hearted banter amongst the passengers and at the end of her PA announcement reminded everyone to vote on the weekend and mentioned John Key wanted her to vote for him."
He said Air NZ did occasionally divert flights to pick up passengers from cancelled flights if there was limited or no opportunity to re-accommodate those passengers on to other services directly from that airport.
Passenger Rachel Wilson said they were warned about the diversion before leaving Nelson and she was unfazed.
"It did not take long and to have the Prime Minister on the flight was a pleasant surprise - I have always wanted to meet him," she said.
Wilson, a National supporter, said Key was humble, sat up the front and did not make a scene.
"I actually went up and said hello to him and he was lovely, two people had photos with him and he was very humble. He even said thank you and goodbye to all the passengers at the end of the flight."
Labour leader Phil Goff said he did not know the truth of the situation and would have to accept Key's assurances.
"That's not the New Zealand way - we don't have special treatment for anybody in New Zealand," Goff said.
Bradford received a call from an irate Lee Heller, who had been a passenger on the direct flight from Nelson to Auckland.
"Out of the blue, passengers on that flight were advised that the plane was to be diverted to New Plymouth for 'operational' reasons.
"Little did they realise that 'operational' meant their flight was diverted simply to pick up the Prime Minister," Bradford said.
"This goes beyond the sort of born to rule arrogance that is normal with National.
"These are the actions of a man who has lost all perspective on how a Prime Minister should behave."
In a letter to Fairfax this morning, Heller said she was flying from Nelson with her ultimate destination being the US.
"[WE] were told the plane was stopping at New Plymouth (although it was supposed to be a nonstop) 'according to operational guidelines', which turned out to be picking up John Key and staff and giving them a free lift, during the last 48 hours of the election."
Heller said she did not work with the Mana Party.
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