Billionaires do it in a Boeing (campaign that is)

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It Was the tycoon Donald Trump, owner of a black Boeing 727 equipped with a movie theatre, oil paintings and a sumptuous bedroom, who said: "You can tell a lot about a person by the kind of plane he has."

If this is true then Sir James Goldsmith, setting out in two weeks' time to canvass Britain for his Referendum Party ahead of the general election, had better not pose as a man of the people.

Not for him the battle bus, favourite of John Major when in touring mode, or the helicopter, in which Tony Blair has been spotted, or even the executive jet. Sir James will be hoping to win the votes of Mr and Mrs Average Briton in his own customised airliner, a $65m (pounds 40m) Boeing 757, one of only two such privately operated planes in the world. "It's not a plane that one associates with private use," said a Boeing spokesman.

The colours of Sir James's plane are those of the Referendum Party - maroon and cream - and if the viewer were in any doubt about the status of its owner, they need only check out the registration VR-CAU (AU being the chemical symbol for gold).

It is a plane fit for royalty, and has indeed been "loaned" to the Princess of Wales on numerous occasions. Last year she flew to Pakistan in it, to attend a fund-raising event for Sir James's son-in-law Imran Khan. Sir James himself uses it to fly to his fortress-villa in Mexico.

According to Malcolm English, editor of Air International magazine, these kinds of planes would typically be used by Middle Eastern princes - "except they would tend to have the 737, which is slightly smaller".

As with many such private aircraft - or "ego-containers", as they are known in the trade - Sir James's plane is leased by his company, Diamond International. The average cost of leasing a three-year-old Boeing 757 is about pounds 200,000 a month.

Senior party sources confirmed that Sir James plans to use it to tour the party's regional centres, going to five meetings to be attended by 20,000 candidates and supporters.

The destinations have not been announced, but they are likely to be large cities because the 757 is too big to land at some regional airports. As a mode of transport for regional campaigning hops, according to Mr English, it "makes no sense at all".

But he added: "One of the advantages of a plane that size is that you can take a fair-sized entourage with you. So it's not as crazy as it might seem at first." And he added, encouragingly for those hacks on the campaign trail: "You could take a press party with no trouble whatsoever. I don't know how many he would typically take, but let's say it would fit more than a coach."

It certainly costs a lot more than a coach, which according to Stagecoach, the bus company, would use about 10 gallons of fuel an hour on the motorway. The 757 uses something like 5,000 gallons an hour. Fuel costs are a large factor in flying planes of this size, and according to Mr English, owners tend to shop around, "moving airports in the same way we would drive to a cheaper petrol station".

Not that this would be a concern for Sir James. "When you `wet lease' an airliner [have the fuel costs included] rather than buy it, which is what Sir James Goldsmith is doing, he doesn't pay for the fuel directly."

Flying on Sir James's aircraft is likely to be an experience far from the economy-class bunfight of most political campaigns. At an estimated cost of pounds 7m, the Boeing's 230 seats have been removed to make room for two luxury bedrooms, kitchens, and a vast leather-lined living room.

New jets are delivered "green", while the owners decide how to decorate, the cost of which usually works out at about pounds 7,000 per square foot. "You can have any kind of luxury, but it's going to cost you big," said one aircraft "customiser".

This was not, he said, taking advantage of the rich. "Fabrics costing pounds 20 a metre in a shop will be pounds 200 in the air, because they have to be fireproof."

But he admitted that the particular tastes of the billionaire class had to be catered for. Donald Trump's former wife Ivana reputedly had a brass floor ordered for their jet - until she decided that its mirrored surface let people see up her skirt.

Conservative Central Office was coy yesterday about Mr Major's campaign transport, but admitted that the battle bus was likely to be drawn into use.

Mr Blair's most extravagant method of transport is likely to be a helicopter, although a source said his staff do their best to dissuade him as they do not consider it safe enough.

Perhaps Sir James's plane will be considered extravagant, but as with everything, there is always someone who will go one better. King Fahd of Saudi Arabia has a 747, with three floors connected by a lift, a complete operating room stocked with his own blood and a throne room with instruments which indicate the direction of Mecca. But then, he's not standing for Putney.