Air New Zealand bosses have apologised in the wake of revelations engineers have been doing work for the Saudi Arabian military. But a bigger problem for the chief executive is his brain fade as to which other military the airline is working for.

“If he knows the number then he probably knows the names.’’

Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Grant Robertson summed up perfectly the glaring hole in Air New Zealand chief executive Greg Foran’s explainer to MPs and the media at Parliament on Thursday. 

In an interview with RNZ earlier this week, Foran revealed Gas Turbines – an Air NZ subsidiary – had between 10 and 20 military contracts with five or six countries.

Which countries’ militaries should Air NZ not do work for? Click here to comment.

While he was happy to name New Zealand, Australia and the United States – he wouldn’t say which other countries were involved.

In this case it seems Foran is a victim of his own staff, and he knew he’d be left exposed at Parliament on Thursday, after repeated requests for the information were never delivered on.

To put your chief executive in that position raises all sorts of questions about the culture within the company.

Worse, it leaves the public speculating as to what other sorts of regimes the country’s national airline is assisting.

As Robertson pointed out, “We’re all going to now be wanting to know what they are aren’t we?’’

If Air NZ staff aren’t prepared to find the answers for Foran, they might be more willing to find them for Robertson, who says he will be following up.

“(Foran) does need to tell New Zealanders where those contracts are – within the bounds of the confidentiality he might have there,’’ Robertson says.

It was TVNZ that revealed the contract with the Saudi Navy, which has been enforcing a blockade on Yemen, putting a halt to life-saving food and medicine for the crippled country.

A review has been launched into the “third-party contract’’ which resulted in the airline subsidiary working on two engines and one power turbine module from vessels belonging to the Royal Saudi Navy.

In front of MPs at the transport select committee, Air NZ chairwoman Dame Therese Walsh said, “I’ll be very clear, we have fallen short’’ of the values expected by the airline and all New Zealanders.

It was only 12 days ago that Foran found out about the contract, despite queries first being made in December.

He explained this was due to a junior staffer in the communications team initially dealing with the query.

Once Foran found out, he launched an internal review and the board has also commissioned an independent external review to be done by PWC.

Dame Therese says the internal review will take more than two weeks but will be complete in under a month.

The gas turbines business has been in operation for 35 years and it’s an unrealistic expectation that the engineers on the factory floor would be fully aware of the humanitarian and political complexities of the contract.

That’s despite Foran being frank that the engineers would have absolutely known they were fulfilling a contract for the Saudi Navy.

What’s missing is a red flag system to stop these mistakes happening in the first place.

And while Air NZ hasn’t halted its other military contracts yet – only the one with Saudi Arabia – it’s an absolute given they will end up doing so in coming days.

When the subsidiary was set up in the 1980s it was done alongside the government of the day and trading partners to secure contracts with the likes of the United States to work on ANZAC frigates.

Consequently there’s been an almost working assumption that contracts with overseas navy are endorsed.

But fast forward to 2021 and the world is a very different place, as it was in May 2019 when this particular contract was signed.

The chief executive then was now-National MP Christopher Luxon, who resigned from the role the following month and left Air NZ in September 2019 to pursue a political career.

Luxon sits on the transport committee but excused himself on Thursday – given the conflict it’s not surprising, especially when Foran sent Luxon a text message alerting him to the timeline.

Luxon told Newsroom he had absolutely no idea or recollection of the contract and because it fell in the $3 million threshold, it wouldn’t have been escalated to his desk.

The chief executive and board do get weekly briefings from various parts of the company and while Luxon said he couldn’t be sure it hadn’t been mentioned in a report somewhere, he didn’t recall it.

There’s a possibility the Foreign Affairs select committee conducts its own review, though that requires the support of Labour and at this stage Robertson says he wants to see the outcomes of the other reviews.

If Parliament does investigate, Luxon could find himself on the wrong side of the committee table facing his colleagues.

Luxon will be hoping when Air NZ finally gets around to providing the names of all the military contracts it’s been involved with, he doesn’t have an even bigger problem on his hands.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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