'Blair Force One' plan is grounded by Brown

It was nicknamed "Blair Force One", an airliner that would transport the former prime minister around the globe in style.

The £12.3m-a-year plane, bristling with communications and security equipment, had been compared to the majestic aeroplane used by American presidents since 1944.

But yesterday Gordon Brown grounded for good his predecessor's plans to lease a wide-bodied jet to fly the prime minister, senior ministers and members of the Royal Family on international missions. The Department for Transport (DfT) said the proposal to acquire a full-sized airliner to convey Mr Brown and his entourage was too expensive and should be ditched. It also said the Royal Flight, provided by the RAF 32 Squadron, would be scrapped.

Instead Mr Brown, senior ministers and the Royal Family will rely on chartered jets for international travel, while the Royal Household will be given grants to buy a small 15-seat executive jet to convey them and senior ministers around Britain.

No 10 denied yesterday that Mr Brown had vetoed the Blair Force One project, saying the decision to rule out the scheme was the result of a detailed business case study by the DfT.

The plan was floated nearly two years ago by Sir Peter Gershon, the Government's efficiency adviser, who said Britain was the only major Western government without a full-size jet.

The plane, likely to have been an 80-seat Boeing 737, was to have been equipped with a ministerial bed and office space. But it ran into strong criticism from MPs angry at the cost, while Mr Brown, then Chancellor, was thought to oppose the scheme.

Mr Brown's official spokesman said yesterday that the Prime Minister had been happy with the original recommendation but stressed that the decision to abandon the scheme had been taken on economic grounds. He said Mr Brown usually travelled by train or car within the UK.

A new official executive jet will be bought by the Royal Household, although the transport department will fund the project.

A statement by Transport minister, Jim Fitzpatrick, said there had been "substantial, above-inflation increases in the cost of buying and operating commercial aircraft, with high price premiums currently being demanded and paid for early delivery."

Mr Fitzpatrick added: "I am today recommending that the needs of the users of this service can best be met through procuring a small aircraft for official travel within the UK, chartered air services for longer journeys involving small parties and a continuation of existing arrangements with UK airlines for journeys involving large parties.

"This approach ensures better value for money for the taxpayer while also minimising the environmental impact.

Norman Baker, Liberal Democrat transport spokesman, welcomed the decision to scrap an "expensive status symbol". He said: "It perhaps shows the Government is starting to reel in the worst of its excesses."

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