David Cameron to join exclusive world leaders club with budget Air Force One

The PM is to get an official plane – just what he needs the week before a spending review. But compared to political peers abroad, his wings are clipped, says Simon Calder



Simon Calder
Thursday 19 November 2015 23:40 GMT
Plane fare: JFK and the original Air Force One
Plane fare: JFK and the original Air Force One (AFP/Getty)

More than 50 years after President Kennedy's Air Force One jet touched down at Gatwick airport, the Prime Minister and senior members of the Cabinet are to get an aircraft of their own for official trips.

But the news that an Airbus A330 refuelling aircraft will be refitted for the purpose as a money-saving exercise was met with derision by the commercial airline business.

The aircraft itself is an RAF Voyager – an A330 that was expensively converted into a flying fuel tank only four years ago. The jet (list price £150m) is now to be refitted as a passenger aircraft at a cost of about £10m.

The Government claims that the move will save £750,000 a year compared with the existing practice of using Royal Squadron planes or chartering commercial jets. That assertion relies on some accounting that is spectacularly creative even by Downing Street standards, apportioning many of the fixed and direct costs to other budgets (and has gone down badly given that the spending review is looming next week). It also locks in the Government to a single wide-bodied aircraft, seating up to 285 people, with a correspondingly massive carbon footprint.

Yet, compared with some of the governmental aircraft burning copious fossil fuels as they fly around the world, David Cameron's new toy looks positively modest.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin arrives at Grodno airport (AFP/Getty)

The US Air Force announced this year that the next American president would fly the world in a top-of-the-range Boeing 747-8, with almost twice the capacity of Britain's VIP jet. Washington is following the rule that presidents of aircraft-manufacturing nations must order one of their own planes.

Which is why President Putin looks as though he is slumming it when his Ilyushin 96 parks up against the US President's jumbo jet at, say, a climate-change conference.

While the Russian-built (and engined) plane may not enjoy the same fuel efficiency as its Western counterparts, at least it has a better safety record than other, Soviet-era, jets; the Ilyushin 96 has never had a fatal accident.

In stark and sad contrast, the Tupolev 154 being used by the Polish President, Lech Kaczynski, crashed in a forest near the Russian city of Smolensk, killing all on board – including many military and political figures.

Across in Moscow's former ideological sister city, Havana, Raul Castro uses the same basic model as the Russian leader, but with a big interior difference. Vladimir Putin is reported to have spent £10m on the interior of his plane, including a £60,000 loo.

In contrast, the Cuban leader calls up Cubana, the national airline, and borrows a plane normally used for shuttling holidaymakers to and from the Caribbean island's beach resorts. In the current climate of rapprochement with Washington, the Cubans are probably looking longingly at a Boeing, previously banned under the terms of the US economic embargo.

King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands carries his daughter as he disembarks at Madrid airport (Getty)

For his increasingly rare foreign forays, Robert Mugabe does much the same as his Cuban comrade: commandeering an elderly Air Zimbabwe Boeing 767. Other African leaders have a penchant for luxury, with Nigeria's top brass enjoying a Boeing business jet – the same basic 737 fuselage as used by no-frills airlines such as Jet2, but fitted out rather more comfortably.

A sprinkling of smaller executive jets for politicians can be seen on the ground at Abuja and Lagos airports.

Even as a small kingdom with a notably modest monarchy, the Netherlands has expensive tastes for royal transportation: a Dutch-built Fokker 70, of the sort that operates commuter flights from British airports to Amsterdam Schiphol. King Willem Alexander is keen on the arrangement; he is qualified to fly the jet, and very often does.

The world figure who has the most colourful aviation career is the Pope. An anachronistic tradition holds that he must fly out on a chartered Alitalia jet (the Vatican City lacking an airline of its own), but return on the airline of the nation he most recently visited. His Holiness has his own call sign, too: volo papale.

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