By GREG ANSLEY and JOHN ROUGHAN
Prime Minister Helen Clark headed for Auckland last night on an Air Force plane after furious Ansett airline workers blockaded her commercial flight from Melbourne.
Transtasman travel for thousands of passengers was thrown into turmoil after protests by workers forced Air New Zealand to suspend flights and Qantas to delay services.
Up to 16,000 Ansett workers might lose their jobs after the Air New Zealand subsidiary was placed in voluntary administration, grounding all Ansett flights early yesterday.
Helen Clark last night described her ordeal as "the journey from hell".
After flying to Rome and back since Tuesday - "we haven't been in a bed since", she said - the Prime Minister's party flew into the Ansett collapse and the resulting anti-New Zealand sentiment.
They arrived at Melbourne at 6.45 am - about four hours after Ansett had been grounded.
When the Prime Minister's party discovered airport staff had blockaded the Air New Zealand plane they transferred their bookings and baggage to Qantas.
Word quickly went around the terminal that the New Zealand Prime Minister was to be on the Qantas flight and it, too, was blockaded.
Police advised her to stay in the lounge, where they remained for four hours until taken by police helicopter to Sale Air Force Base, where she boarded an Air Force Orion.
She did not try to talk publicly during the day. "It wasn't even a good idea to walk outside. Feelings were running pretty high," Helen Clark said.
"I didn't think we should get involved in what in a sense is an industrial dispute. What annoys me is that there are clearly legal methods of dealing with it but they preferred to take it out on the travelling public."
Ansett passengers who arrived early at airports around Australia yesterday morning learned that the country's second-largest airline and the jets that last year carried the Olympic logo were on the ground for good.
Union organiser Christine Tutty had been called and told of the decision at 6.15 am, although since a national hookup the previous evening she had been waiting for the axe to fall.
"People are shattered by what's happened," she said. "They want answers."
Most Ansett staff woke to learn they had lost their jobs over radio or television, or by notices stuck to the locked doors of the airline's terminals.
As the realisation sank in that the unthinkable had happened, shock turned to anger that erupted in the blockading of Air New Zealand aircraft, stopwork meetings, mass rallies and calls for the heads of the board of the Kiwi flag carrier and the New Zealand and Australian Governments.
With trucks jammed against more of their aircraft at Melbourne's Tullamarine Airport and fury spreading into the broader union movement, Air New Zealand suspended transtasman flights out of New Zealand.
Terminals were choked by 45,000 stranded passengers, waiting for news or for one of the free seats offered by Qantas and Virgin Blue, or simply giving up and accepting they had lost their holidays, business trips and - for many - any chance of a refund.
Australia's corporate watchdog, the Australian Securities and Investment Commission, launched an investigation into Ansett's collapse and the Australian Government vowed to pursue Air New Zealand for $A400 million ($487 million) in workers' entitlements that the airline is refusing to accept responsibility for.
The Opposition warned that a Labor government could shut Air NZ out of Australia if it did not meet its obligations to Ansett staff.
Prime Minister John Howard, who stepped off a plane at Sydney after his harrowing time in Washington to be greeted by a domestic crisis that has the potential to wreck his chances of another term in office, spoke briefly with a delegation of Ansett workers before heading for an emergency cabinet meeting.
Waiting for Mr Howard were demands that the Air Force be called in to fly stranded passengers home and to devise some way of shaking the blame for Ansett's collapse now also sticking to his Government.
New Zealand Finance Minister Michael Cullen issued his own statement to the Australian media to quell anti-New Zealand sentiment, absolving Wellington from responsibility and passing the buck to problems inherited from Ansett's previous owners, News Ltd and TNT.
News Ltd hit back with claims it had left Ansett as a business in good shape run by a first-class management team.
And as the political war raged, the effects of Ansett's collapse rolled out like a succession of tidal waves.
National Australia Bank reeled with massive losses from its exposure to Ansett and Air NZ, Ansett travel subsidiary Traveland and airline caterer Gate Gourmet also moved into administration, the viability of Canberra and other smaller airports was cast into doubt, and rental car and taxi companies prepared for setbacks.
At Tullamarine, where maintenance workers trapped Helen Clark and Air NZ planes, Steven Smith, an Ansett worker for 27 years whose father had worked for the airline for more than 40 years, harangued passengers lining up for transtasman Air NZ flights.
"They should hunt down Air NZ chief executive Gary Toomey as a traitor.
"Gary Toomey is an Australian and he's too gutless to come back to Australia," he shouted.
A fellow employee added:"Thirty years of service and this happens. I've never been out of a job in my life and now I've been dropped."
Chanting Ansett workers moved from airports to rallies in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, leaving scenes of chaos and distraught passengers, most deeply shocked by the collapse of a national icon and furious at Air NZ and their Government for allowing it to happen.
Sarah Richards, an Ansett employee for eight years and the daughter of founder Sir Reg Ansett, cried as she absorbed the news of its collapse. "Everything that my family stands for, and everything he stood for, I think is gone," she said.
And in a call that echoed the sentiments of many, one sacked Ansett worker told Mr Tutty, the Australian Services Union organiser:"As long as I live I'll never buy another New Zealand product or go anywhere near the country."
At Auckland Airport frustrated travellers sitting on their suitcases in the check-in queues yesterday had little sympathy for the Ansett workers.
The departure board said "delayed indefinitely" beside all flights to Australia.
Sydney-based businessman Mike Watson likened the industrial action to "another act of terrorism".
"I feel sorry for Air New Zealand - it made a bad investment. [The union's] argument should be with the Australian Government."
A 20/20 news crew was also delayed on its flight to Melbourne to cover the Ansett story. The departure area erupted into clapping and cheering when just before 4 pm it was announced the check-in would proceed.
By GREG ANSLEY and JOHN ROUGHAN