'Blair Force One' cleared for take-off with royal approval

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The Independent Online

After years of being stuck on the tarmac, "Blair Force One" is finally being cleared for take-off. Tony Blair is ready to agree to a fleet of up to four new planes to fly senior ministers and members of the Royal Family around the globe.

And at least one is likely to be a long-distance passenger jet to become the British equivalent of the US president's Air Force One.

Almost unnoticed, the Government's efficiency adviser, Sir Peter Gershon, has been carrying out a review into royal and ministerial air travel. The Royal Family is said to be keenest on the new planes to replace ageing craft that are currently operated by the RAF's 32 Squadron, popularly known as the Queen's Flight.

The Prime Minister has for years resisted buying "Blair Force One", knowing that he will be accused of extravagant presidential pretension. The cost of chartering planes for Mr Blair's frequent world tours is offset by large charges levied on the travelling media corps.

Most other ministers and minor royals do not have - and often do not want - a trailing press pack to cover their costs. Instead they use either scheduled flights or the Queen's Flight. But the aircraft in 32 Squadron are nearing the end of their useful life and are often not capable of flying to countries where scheduled flights are not possible.

Sir Peter Gershon's review was set up just before Christmas to consider the safety, reliability, security and value for money of ministerial and royal air travel. At the time the review was welcomed as "timely" by Buckingham Palace, and government sources confirm that the Queen is pushing for a new fleet.

The existing fleet of 32 Squadron includes two 20-year-old BAe 146s, which can carry up to 23 people, and five much smaller Hawker S125s.

Mr Blair's new jet is unlikely to compete with the grandeur of the Russian president. Vladimir Putin's plane comes complete with two bedrooms, two showers, a conference room and a resting room. Mr Putin's on-board living quarters were recently redecorated at a cost of $40m.

Nor is "Blair Force One" likely to impress the current user of Air Force One, who can boast that his jet is capable of flying halfway around the world without stopping to refuel.

Sir Peter Gershon is due to deliver his report on air travel next month.