Touchy PM Triggers Airborne Political Storm

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Take a wisecracking pilot, a cranky prime minister and a planeload of impatient passengers (some of them the PM's political rivals) and you get a political scandal, New Zealand style. There's no equivalent of Air Force One for New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark so she flies commercial. On a recent Air New Zealand flight to Christchurch, the PM was among the last few passengers to board and the pilot quipped that it was not the way to show support for the national airline. Most passengers took it for the joke that it was. But not Clark and her cronies. She went to the cockpit to give the pilot a prime ministerial dressing-down and the pilot went on the PA system to apologize, to the amazement and bemusement of the other passengers. Clark insisted she wasn't the last to board and it wasn't her fault the plane was delayed. "I said I felt that the comments were unfair and that I had not held up the plane. I accepted his apology and, for my part, I leave it there," Clark told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The little fracas might have stayed within the aluminum tube but for the fact it contained dozens of other politicians and about half the country's political press corps. And now Clark is being criticized for her "bossy boots" reaction to the pilot's comments and her political foes are mocking her thin skin. "The Prime Minister of this country ought to be a little less arrogant," said Opposition Leader Dr. Don Brash. "I feel sorry for the pilot. He obviously got a flea in his ear from the prime minister." The pilot was also suspended for two days and the airline made a public apology. In Clark's defense, being the prime minister of New Zealand comes with some irritations that no U.S. president will ever have to endure. Imagine the president's motorcade being pulled over by the police and his driver charged with dangerous driving. It happened to Clark a couple of weeks ago as her police driver raced to get her to a rugby match on time.