'Blair Force One' takes off as PM and Queen get aircraft

Click to follow
Indy Politics

Downing Street and Buckingham Palace are to lease two aircraft to fly the Prime Minister, other ministers and members of the Royal Family on official business.

The aircraft, nicknamed "Blair Force One and Two," will cost an estimated £12.3m a year. Downing Street said the net extra cost would be £1.2m more than the present bill for using RAF planes for most short journeys and chartering bigger aircraft for long-haul flights.

The aircraft will be equipped with communications and security systems. Although they will be compared to the Air Force One, used by US presidents since 1944, they will still be dwarfed by the President's Boeing 747, which has three floors, restaurants, a bar and cinema.

No 10 declined to confirm the details until next week, when it will publish a review by Sir Peter Gershon, the Government's efficiency adviser, who has recommended that two second-hand aircraft should be leased permanently.

One is likely to be a Boeing 737, capable of seating between 85 and 215 passengers, and the other a smaller executive jet. They will not come into service until late 2007 or early 2008, and so Tony Blair may have little- if any - use of them before he steps down.

"The designation of it as Blair Force One is a bit bizarre," said a Downing Street source. "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."

Officials insisted the move would save money in the long term. They said the present small aircraft maintained by the RAF, formerly known as the Queen's Flight, were increasingly hit by maintenance problems.

Mr Blair travelled to last week's EU summit in Brussels in a chartered aircraft bearing Austrian livery because it was the only aircraft available. "The present system is inefficient, it's insecure and the cost rises all the time," said one government source.

Downing Street said the cost would be shared between the Government and the Palace, with Whitehall departments absorbing the bill from existing budgets. It added that the move would not increase carbon emissions because Mr Blair's flights had been "carbon neutral" since last year. It said Mr Blair used the official aircraft for his family holidays only when this was recommended by his security advisers.

The decision was criticised by the opposition parties and trade unions. Chris Grayling, the Tory transport spokesman, said: "It sends totally the wrong message for ministers to be spending millions of pounds of taxpayers' money on two new, official planes at a time when jobs are being cut in the NHS. This reinforces the impression of a government which is out of touch with the real world and is too concerned with the trappings of office rather than getting on with the job."