New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has asserted that an incident involving a Shanghai-bound Air New Zealand flight turning back to Auckland last Saturday was an “administrative issue” and would have no impact on diplomatic ties with China.
“It would be wrong to confuse administrative and regulatory issues [as] a signal on our relationship with China,” Ardern said late Monday in an interview with New Zealand's state-owned television network TVNZ's 1 News channel, a day after the incident.
The Air NZ Flight 289 from Auckland to Shanghai, with 270 passengers aboard, turned around about five hours into the journey on Sunday after the airline discovered a “technicality,” meaning the particular aircraft in operation, a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, did not have regulatory authority to land in China.
“Air New Zealand has been very open about the fact that there is a requirement from China's end for planes going into China to be registered. In this case they were using a temporary plane which wasn't registered, hence the consequence,” the prime minister explained.
Earlier on Sunday, Eric Hundman, an assistant professor at New York University Shanghai, who was on the diverted flight, shared the apology message he received from the airline, confirming Ardern's assertion.
“Air NZ wishes to sincerely apologise for the return and subsequent retiming of your flight, NZ289. As you were advised onboard, the aircraft operating your flight did not have regulatory approval to land in China and was required to return to Auckland,” the message from the airline said.
Hundman said Air NZ also offered passengers a "gesture of goodwill" in the form of a voucher worth 200 U.S. dollars, in addition to paying for hotel rooms.
The rescheduled flight landed in Shanghai on Monday. "We know customers will be deeply disappointed and frustrated by this situation and we are very sorry for the disruption to their travel plans," Air NZ said, confirming that "these customers have now since arrived in Shanghai."
Ardern's remarks came after the incident sparked political speculations in New Zealand over its diplomatic ties with China.
"We need to know what has happened here. Is it part of the ongoing deterioration in relations between this New Zealand government and China?" opposition National Party leader Simon Bridges questioned in a post on Twitter on Sunday.
Dismissing such conjectures as “irresponsible,” Ardern accused the opposition of spreading “misinformation.”
“In the past, New Zealand has enjoyed a consensus approach to foreign policy, a unified front. That's in New Zealand's best interest. Them (the opposition) spreading misinformation around issues like this flight, I have decided I see it as irresponsible and a real departure from what we have experienced on foreign policy before,” she said.
“Personally, I think, that's disappointing,” she added.
The prime minister asserted that despite complexities in ties, Auckland's relationship remains robust. “Look, there are no questions speaking more broadly… that our relationship with China is a complex relationship. It sometimes will have its challenges. But they (China) remain an incredibly important economic and people-to-people partner,” she stressed, citing the ongoing exhibition of China's famed Terracotta Warriors at the National Museum of New Zealand as a sign of strong ties.
The exhibition – featuring eight warriors standing 180 cm tall, and two full-size horses from the terracotta army, as well as two half-size replica bronze horse-drawn chariots – opened to the public on December 15 in the run-up to the beginning of 2019 China-New Zealand Year of Tourism. The exhibition runs until April 22, 2019.
“It is the China-New Zealand Year of Tourism this year and China is the source of our second biggest group of tourists,” Ardern said, adding that she has already received an invitation to visit China and both sides are working on the dates.
By Abhishek G Bhaya