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Some of the world’s rarest airplanes have converged on New York this week, when the United Nations General Assembly attracted leaders from all over the world. Many of them took one of the VIP jets that a lot of countries have in their air force’s inventory for precisely this reason — ferrying leaders around in airplanes that offer secure communications, aren’t subject to the schedules and cancellations of commercial airlines and can function as command center in a crisis. And like the countries themselves, they come in all sizes and capabilities.
President Donald Trump showed that he was very much aware of how a leader’s jet can function as a signifier of power when he hosted the Emir of Kuwait earlier this month. The Emir, Trump complained, had flown into town on a plane that was longer than his, “maybe by even 100 feet.” The president would have been right if referencing his personal Boeing 757-200, which clocks in at about 75 feet shorter than the Emir’s 747. But presidents of the United States do not fly around on their private jets, even if they happen to own one. They fly Air Force One, one of two 747s that are almost as long as, and certainly much better equipped than, the Emir’s. That’s how Trump rolled into New York City to address the UN meeting.
Air Force One is an aviation marvel like no other, but here’s a look at the other big jets that ferry presidents, prime ministers, kings, queens and even one emperor around the world.
Airbus depends heavily on the UK for design and production facilities, including the Broughton plant which produces the wings for all civil Airbus aircraft. It should come as no surprise then that Prime Minister Theresa May travels on a Royal Air Force (RAF) Airbus Voyager for official engagements.
It’s basically a militarized version of the Airbus A330-200 commercial transport, used mostly as a tanker. The British government added 58 seats, missile defense systems and hardened communications. The plane still carries its original RAF livery, and when not in use by government officials still flies its original mission: mid-air refueling.
Before the Voyager entered service in 2016, the government leased commercial aircraft, typically from British Airways, when needed for official missions. The dedicated A330 will be cheaper, according to government figures.
While the 747’s days of carrying civilian passenger are numbered, the Queen of the Skies hasn’t gone out of style among heads of state. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for example, has access to a fleet of Air India 747-400s. The planes are part of the regular fleet of the state-owned airline, and it’s a safe bet that when the prime minister or president are aboard, they get better service than The Points Guy‘s Zach Honig did on Air India’s 777-300ER.
The president’s 747 is actually designated VC-25A, a one-off hybrid of the 747-200’s fuselage with the shorter upper-deck hump, and the 747-400’s engines and digital flight deck. (In the US Air Force nomenclature, V stands for VIP and C for transport.) There are two of them, based at Andrews Air Force base in Maryland, and they often travel together — one with the president, and one as backup / decoy. Its capabilities are classified, but it’s known to be able to be refueled in flight and to possess missile-deflecting countermeasures.
Oh, and that Kuwaiti 747? It’s a 747-8BBJ, a “Boeing Business Jet” version of the 747-8I, the latest and likely last model of Boeing’s four-engine long-ranger. It’s actually a bit longer than Air Force One (250 feet to 232), giving Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, the ruler of the oil-rich state, claim (shared, as we’ll see) to the biggest VIP jet around. The United States will even the score when the new Air Force One, also a converted 747-8I, enters service in the next decade.
Trump loves to drive a good bargain, but the president of Mexico may have beat him to a sweet deal when the Mexican Air Force scooped up an early-build 787-8 from Boeing that the company had been trying to unload for a while. Only the sixth Dreamliner off the assembly line, it’s one of the early 787s that suffered from excessive weight that made them less attractive for airline service. The Mexican press harped about the cost, but while even a relatively cheap 787 still costs a lot of money, this one offers a great bang for the buck. At a reported price of $127 million compared to $220 million for a new one, this was a good deal even when factoring in the cost of conversion to a presidential-grade jet.
Built in 2009 and used for tests, this 787 sat unsold until 2014. And when you’re flying just a few passengers — not a planeload of 200 people and their luggage — some excessive weight is really not an issue.
United Arab Emirates
While Mexican journalists castigated their government for lavishing money on a fancy jet, the UAE half a world away faced no such concerns. The Abu Dhabi Amiri Flight Fleet, which flies the royal family and high officials of Abu Dhabi — the richest of the seven emirates — has seven VIP jets alone including a 747-8BBJ that goes for at least $350 million before being fitted with interiors and all the other gear needed for security and communications. It’s by a wide margin the most expensive VIP jet in the skies today.
The Italian prime minister and president’s jet also has a connection to Abu Dhabi. It’s an Airbus A340-500 that used to fly for Etihad, the airline owned by the Abu Dhabi government. Barely a year after Etihad announced its ill-fated investment in the now-bankrupt Italian airline Alitalia, the Italian government leased in 2016 an old Etihad A340-500 to supplement its Airbus A319s and Dassault Falcon VIP jets. The real cost of the transaction isn’t known, but Italian media crunched some numbers and estimated that the government is paying about $15 million a year — not a very good rate for a beautiful but now dated jet.
Airlines have dumped the A340-500 in favor of more economical twin-engine planes, but Italy may have saved money by keeping the Etihad interiors, including — wrote Italian newspaper La Repubblica — in-flight entertainment in Arabic and regular airline seats, except for a room dedicated to the VIP personality being transported.
Bonus: despite being formally a military jet, the A340 got a civilian registration, the perfectly apt I-TALY. It may be the only government jet in the world whose registration spells exactly the name of the country. (The Mexicans get close: their 787 is registered XC-MEX.)
— NYCAviation (@NYCAviation) September 21, 2017
It can be easy to forget that Boeing and Airbus aren’t the only airplane manufacturers out there. The Russian government of President Vladimir Putin flies a large fleet of Russian planes designed in the Soviet era, including the Ilyushin Il-96-300PU that serves as the presidential aircraft. You might think that “PU” stands, rather inelegantly, for Putin, but it actually means “Punkt Upravleniya,” which is Russian for “command point.”
The ’96 was never a commercial success; it only flew with Russia’s Aeroflot and Cuba’s Cubana, with only the latter still operating it. It has, however, the unique distinction of being the safest large commercial jet in the world, surely an important consideration when the person on board controls a nuclear arsenal and vast military.
Speaking of Ilyushins: the ruler of the world’s most closed-off dictatorship, Kim Jong-un, is not showing up for the UN’s big meeting. But if he had, he would have arrived in a real AvGeek gem: an Ilyushin Il-62M, the plane that brought long-haul nonstop jet travel to the USSR in the 1960s. Kim would also have had to make at least one fuel stop on the way: the venerable four-engine jet doesn’t have the range to make it from Pyongyang to New York on one tank.
Sanctions on North Korea mean that the isolated totalitarian regime cannot import European or US aircraft, so its national airline Air Koryo and its government VIP fleet make do with truly vintage, made in the Soviet Union airplanes. Bonus for aviation enthusiasts: North Korea, while a nightmare for human rights, is a paradise for rare aircraft. To see them, though, you have to go there.
Switzerland is one of the few countries whose economic power is not matched by an equally flashy presidential plane. Its largest government VIP plane is a Dassault Falcon 900EX, flying members of the Swiss Federal Council and other VIPs. The Falcon is tiny compared to a large jet, but it goes just as far and it offers a smooth and luxurious ride, albeit to just a dozen passengers at most.
Fun fact: the Swiss bought the plane from Prince Albert of Monaco, who has since upgraded to the Falcon 7X, the latest version of the sleek French-made jet.
While presidential 747s are pretty common, the Sultan of Brunei earns a spot on this list because he flies his 747 himself. Hassanal Bolkiah, one of the world’s richest people, used a tiny fraction of his personal fortune to buy a 747-400 from Lufthansa that the airline did not need.
The Sultan’s personal fleet also includes a Boeing 767, an Airbus A340, and two Sikorsky S-70A helicopters (the civilian version of the popular Blackhawk).
The one nation in the world that still has an emperor requires an airplane to fly its monarch in style. That’s why Japan has not one but two Boeing 747-400s, flying in what might well be the most elegant livery of any airplane.
Besides the emperor, the twin 747s also fly the prime minister. They fly with the call sign “Japanese Air Force One” and are maintained by Japan Airlines, which used to have the exact same model in passenger service. They will both be phased out soon in favor of two 777-300ERs, only slightly smaller but far more modern.
President Alexander van den Bellen didn’t bother with any of this VIP jet stuff to get to the United Nations and back. There’s a perfectly good Austrian Airlines flight linking Vienna and Newark airport four days a week, and that’s what he took, according to a journalist who was on flight OS90 on September 20. No word on whether His Excellency was traveling in business or economy.
— Scott Mayerowitz (@GlobeTrotScott) September 20, 2017
— With reporting by Ethan Steinberg.
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