The "protocol" cited by John Key's staff as the reason the Prime Minister used an air force chopper for a trip to car races last Saturday is an unwritten courtesy to the Governor-General which the Weekend Herald understands is not strictly observed.
It was revealed this week that Mr Key has used RNZAF Iroquois helicopters for transport four times this month and he and other VIPs used up 82 hours of flying time in air force aircraft in the last financial year, against 32.2 hours the year before.
Last year is understood to have included more international travel than the previous one; for example, the air force was used to fly VIPs from Pacific nations to a Commonwealth meeting in Trinidad.
Mr Key's use of an Iroquois to travel to the V8 Supercar races in Hamilton and back to Auckland in time for a golf club dinner has drawn criticism from Opposition parties. They say it is a slap in the face for New Zealanders feeling the pinch as a result of Government policies.
A spokesman for Mr Key said the decision by his staff to use the helicopter was made because of concerns that heavy traffic could delay him getting to a black-tie dinner at the Royal Auckland Golf Club.
Mr Key's office said it would have been unacceptable for him to be late as the Governor-General was also attending and protocol required that a Prime Minister could not arrive later than the Queen's representative.
A spokesman for Governor-General Sir Anand Satyanand refused to answer questions about the protocol, including whether it existed or not, but Hugo Judd, who was official secretary to former Governor-General Dame Silvia Cartwright, told the Weekend Herald there was an understanding that the Prime Minister did arrive at formal events before the Governor-General.
"I would call it protocol although there's nothing in formal writing or law stating that, but it's a courtesy and a tradition."
Mr Judd said he would contact the Prime Minister's office in advance of formal events "to make sure their programmes were synchronised".
But another staffer for a former Governor-General said he was unaware of the protocol.
"I remember there was a number of functions that we attended with the Prime Minister ... and I'm pretty sure that we had both things occur, either the Governor-General turned up first or the PM did."
Mr Judd said other unwritten rules around the Governor-General's attendance at events were based on the principle that generally the Governor-General takes precedence over everybody else. The golf club gaining "royal" status was clearly a formal event and the Prime Minister would be expected to arrive first.
The Defence Force was unable to provide a breakdown of air force VIP travel by national and international flying time in time for publication.
Thursday's Herald incorrectly said Mr Key and other ministers had used 82 hours of flying time in air force aircraft. These hours include transport for other VIPs.