New planes on way for the Queen and Blair

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair and the Queen are to get two new dedicated aircraft, senior Downing Street sources said today.

Prime Minister One is likely to be a Boeing 737, which can seat between 85 and 215 passengers.

The other will be a smaller aircraft seating around 15 to 20 people. The type of plane has yet to be decided.

Both will be on permanent lease and the extra cost of around £1.5million above the current £9.5 million will be spread across several Government departments including the Cabinet Office and the Ministry of Defence.

The senior No 10 source said the current leasing system was "inefficient, becoming increasingly costly and not very secure".

The planes - which will inevitably be dubbed Blair Force One - will not in fact come into service until late 2007 or early 2008, meaning it will be the premiers who follows him who will be the main beneficiary.

"This is for his successors," said the senior Downing Street source.

It was also stressed that the aircraft would not be newly built, but second hand.

The prospect of a dedicated aircraft for the Prime Minister, other ministers and the Royal family, has been the source of controversy for years.

No 10 has looked on with envy at other leaders' dedicated, well-equipped aircraft.

Recently, Mr Blair has been forced to arrive on overseas visits in foreign-chartered aircraft.

The senior source said: "It's not at all good to see leading British politicians, including the Prime Minister, going to foreign events in planes hired from foreign countries.

"It's inefficient, it's insecure and the cost of the present system rises all the time."

Mr Blair arrived in Brussels in a chartered aircraft bearing Austrian livery because it was the only aircraft available.

The senior source said: "We are going to lease two aircraft, one large, one small and the leasing will cost about £1.5 million more than the current cost is, but over time there will be savings."

The permanent lease - expected to be officially confirmed as part of the Gershon review of Government expenditure - will actually cost £12.3 million, compared to the current £9.5 million but No 10 sources insisted savings will bring the real net difference down to £1.5 million.

The source said the aircraft would not come into service until late 2007 or early 2008 so "the designation of it as Blair Force One is a bit bizarre".

He added: "This is for his successor, but even more so for the Queen. This is jointly for the Queen and the Prime Minister and other ministers and as always the Queen has first choice."

No 10 sources acknowledge that it was probably only a departing Prime Minister who could have made the decision, knowing it was bound to attract controversy.