Inside Blair Force One

Downing Street has its heart set on a corporate jet to fly Team Tony (and the Royal Family) around the world. But Gordon Brown has other - more turbulent ideas - ideas. Francis Elliott welcomes you aboard

Sunday 20 November 2005 01:00 GMT

Tony Blair is demanding a new £30m long-range business jet to fly senior ministers and members of the Royal Family around the world, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.

Downing Street quietly ordered a review of royal and ministerial air travel at the end of last year to pave the way for the purchase of the jet, dubbed "Blair Force One".

The completed review, carried out by Sir Peter Gershon, recommends a fleet of three new aircraft including one long-range business jet "capable of carrying an entourage", according to one insider.

Gordon Brown, however, has told Mr Blair that he must find money for the new jet from existing No 10 and Foreign Office funds.

The Chancellor's refusal to find extra cash for the plane sets him on a collision course with both the Prime Minister and the Queen, who strongly supports the purchase of the new jet.

Buckingham Palace has been lobbying for the new aircraft on the grounds that the existing fleet operated by the RAF 32 Squadron is ageing and potentially insecure.

The biggest drawback to the existing fleet is that none of the aircraft is capable of intercontinental travel. Expensive long-haul charter flights must be claimed from - and declared to - the taxpayer.

A senior Whitehall official said: "All the pressure on this is coming from No 10 and the Foreign Office. The Chancellor has made it clear that he will not make additional funds available, so if this is a priority the cash will have to be found from within the current Cabinet Office and Foreign Office allocations up to 2008."

Mr Brown is also said to have stressed that if the Government does buy a new fleet, ministers' travel needs would take priority, and not - as at present - those of the Royal Family.

Downing Street, however, stressed that by the time a new plane was in service Mr Blair would be nearing the end of his time in office. "Let's face it, Gordon's more likely to benefit from this," said one senior aide.

If purchased, the plane would almost certainly be an Airbus 319 Corporate Jet, according to Paul Jackson, editor of Jane's All The World's Aircraft.

"It can carry up to 40 passengers around 7,250 miles, which would get you to China or around the world with a couple of stops. The only other possibility would be the Boeing Business Jet but that might be politically difficult given it's made in the US," said Mr Jackson.

The Airbus costs around £30m, has a maximum speed of Mach 0.82 and can fly at up to 41,000ft. Inside, the aircraft can be fitted to customers' own specifications. One Middle Eastern customer recently fitted his with gold bathroom taps, according to Mr Jackson, although he says the usual layout is more restrained.

The annual release of the costs of royal and ministerial air travel provides rich journalistic pickings, with Prince Andrew and Margaret Beckett, the Environment Secretary, favourite targets. Mr Blair's 21 overseas flights in the past financial year cost £809,152.

"Sir Peter has reached the conclusion that the most cost-effective and secure option would be to buy at least one long-range corporate jet capable of flying an entourage between continents," one senior government figure told The Independent on Sunday.

Sir Peter is said to argue that Britain is the only G8 nation without a plane for the exclusive use of the head of state and head of government.

The purchase would be "cost-neutral", he argues, given the current cost of maintaining the ageing Queen's Flight of seven short-range aircraft, which is borne by the MoD.

Air Force One: Boeing 747-200B

How Blair's jet would stack up against the President's

'Blair Force One' would struggle to compete with the US presidential plane, called "Air Force One", which was used last week by George Bush on his official visit to China.

The triple-deck jet is bigger, faster and heavier. A highly customised Boeing 747-200B, with Air Force designation VC-25, it has its own state room within its 4,000sq ft interior. The presidential suite even has a "workout room".

Even the travelling White House press corps have their own deck, complete with sleeping quarters. And should any of them fall ill, the plane has a doctor on board, as well as a fold-out operating table. The aircraft's use as a presidential refuge was displayed in the hours after the 11 September hijackings when President Bush was kept in the skies, safe from terrorist attack.

The plane's defences would include the so-called Nemesis system that alerts the crew if it is targeted with an infra-red guided weapon. Scramble devices automatically kick in if the aircraft is within a four-mile range of an airport or below 20,000ft.

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