Prime Minister John Key's decision to quit an overseas trade mission to attend the funerals of three Air Force servicemen has been criticised as "short-sighted and irresponsible".

The comments were made by Cognition Education chief executive John Langley, who was one of 90 business men and women in the delegation to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

He said the decision was not in New Zealand's long-term interests and that Mr Key was pandering to public and media opinion.

The "photo opportunity" of Mr Key's visit to Afghanistan on the front page of yesterday's Herald "added insult to injury".

Having Mr Key on the missions would have had enormous impact for business and paved the way for future development.

"And we blew it," Dr Langley says in a Herald opinion article published today.

Dr Langley described the helicopter crash on Anzac Day as a terrible tragedy.

"But is that a reason for the Prime Minister to abandon his international obligations and rush back to New Zealand to do little more than pander to New Zealand public opinion and our moralistic and judgmental press?"

It is understood others in the group shared Dr Langley's views.

Trade Negotiations Minister Tim Groser remained with the trade mission for the duration despite his own personal trauma.

His mother died last Tuesday, but he remained with the group until it had finished its programme on Thursday.

But Mr Groser last night vehemently rejected any suggestion that the Prime Minister's decision had done any damage.

"I can assure you that every single minister in the states that I visited ... not only totally understood the Prime Minister's decisions when I explained the very, very strong emotional significance of Anzac Day in terms of our history as a nation but thought it was totally appropriate that the New Zealand Prime Minister has to pull out.

"Far from there being any offence, it was completely understood."

Mr Groser said no one on the New Zealand delegation had raised the issue with him.

Dr Langley was one of several educational representatives on the trip - which was paid for by the participants, who each paid about $20,000.

Other companies with senior executives on the trip included Fonterra, Zespri, Bernard Mathews, Tait Electronics and David Reid Homes.

Mr Key was to have joined the trade mission from Monday to Thursday last week after Anzac services in Turkey, and then gone to Dubai and on to his secret mission to Afghanistan.

Instead, he returned to New Zealand on Tuesday last week, attended the funerals on Thursday and flew back out on Friday in time to make his Afghanistan trip as scheduled.

Dr Langley said the public would have understood that duties and obligations as Prime Minister sometimes conflicted with local events and that he had to do what was best for the long-term interests of the country.

"That does not involve scuttling back to New Zealand and abandoning an incredibly important mission that is the pre-cursor to the signing of a free trade agreement between New Zealand and one of the wealthiest regions of the world," he said.

"His actions were short-sighted and irresponsible."

The test of true leadership was when obvious and popular decisions were not taken, he said.