23 NOVEMBER 2015
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There’s nothing like a debate over ministerial perks to get the fur – ahem – flying. This time it’s David Cameron’s jet. Reports last week said the PM and senior ministers are to get a refitted RAF A330 tanker aircraft to transport them on official visits. (see Cam Force One)
It was the alleged cost of converting the aircraft – said to be about £10 million – that set the mood. Outrageous, said the usual suspects. Good value, riposted the government. Brize Norton would clearly be the base making Northolt somewhat redundant or at worst not very cost effective..
Inevitably there were comparisons with the United States’ presidential jet, Air Force One. What Americans think about the cost of that is rarely mentioned. But put the real all-bells-and-whistles US model, resplendent in the national colours and complete with a freshly-laundered Barack Obama on the steps, up against the drab Airbus and the difference is easy to spot. It is not a news item but Boeing announced an order for two 747-8's last week.
It’s all reminiscent of the fuss when BA some years ago dropped the Union flag from its fleet, a faux pas of a policy that was speedily changed as soon as it could be decently done.
Part of the problem with last week’s announcement was the timing, coming just days before George Osborne was due to unveil his latest spending review. Ministers countered by arguing the refitted aircraft will save taxpayers £775,000 a year in charter charges from using commercial carriers.
A trip at short notice to take Mr Cameron and the royal family to the funeral of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was said to have cost £100,000. Downing Street said it currently spends £6,700 per flying hour on the prime minister's travel, and that is expected to drop to £2,000 under the new arrangements
A spokesman also noted that the plan marked a way of making better use of the RAF fleet to transport senior ministers and consequently deliver savings for taxpayers.
"We have decided to adapt one of our existing Voyager aircraft so that, in addition to its primary air tanking role, it can transport ministers and it will also be available for the Royal Family to use."
"In terms of reducing the travelling costs we are looking at moving away from long-distance chartering," one source said.
As with much else in Britain, it all comes down to prestige rather than money. Critics of the new scheme have oddly not mentioned the UK is the only G20 nation not to have a dedicated aircraft for transporting either heads of state or government. France, Germany and even Belgium each have one.
There is also the point that a dedicated aircraft can be fitted with properly-secure communications and other assets, including a missile detection system. And, as air transport consultant John Strickland told the BBC, it is potentially an opportunity to show off British engineering.
“If it showcases an aircraft in which Britain plays a key part, that's a tangible benefit," he added.
The debate goes on.
All comments are filtered to exclude any excesses but the Editor does not have to agree with what is being said. 100 words maximum
David Bentley, Manchester/UK
Will the bits that were made in Britain have a Union Flag stuck on them?
Richard Dawnay, Ryde
Ah, (not so) sweet memories of Blair Force 1.