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VIP fleet choice more about size of PM’s entourage than make of jet

The PM’s VIP jet is also coming up for renewal. Is it time for what was sometimes referred to in Rudd’s day as Reptile 1 to be supersized to fit in the entire press gallery, and become Zoo 1?

Mid cabin in an Airbus ACJ319, photo by Airbus

The Australian Government is shopping for a new VIP fleet but the choice may come down to just how the Prime Minister needs to fly rather than the marque of the jet.

When Garuda flight GA200 crashed at Yogyakarta on 7 March 2007, killing an Australian Financial Review reporter Morgan Mellish, two Australian Federal Police offices Brice Steele and Mark Scott, and two Australian Foreign Affairs officials, Allison Sudrajat and Liz O’Neill, and 18 other people, they were on the flight because there was no room in the VIP fleet Boeing BBJ that was carrying Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer and Attorney General Philip Ruddock on a mission to Java.

Even before this tragedy there had been suggestions made within the Howard Government that a larger jet than the VIP fleet BBJ was needed in order to carrying a senior government party and support staff and a  typical press gallery media contingent.

Those calls were repeated during the Rudd Government, including suggestions that two of the five Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transports or MRTTs be modified to be able to carry such an expanded entourage in the same way that two aged RAAF 707s had been used before the two Boeing BBJs took over their VIP roles in 2004.

Since then, nothing more has been said about this on the public record.

The A330 suggestion, whether as MRTTs with more flexible interiors, or in its own right, makes sense. So would a Boeing 777, more specifically the 777-200ER model, which is a highly capable jet but much less costly to acquire and reconfigure than the current -300ER and ultra long range -200LR models.

Similarly, a lightly used recently built A340-300 would make sense. There are no A340-500s *, arguably the most versatile ultra long range jet ever built, available for sale, and at the very large jet end of spectrum, reconditioned Boeing 747-400s, or a brand new VIP version of the Boeing 747-800 or an Airbus A380 would all neatly combine excessive capacity with electoral suicide in the one super sized package. No Australian government would ever make such a mistake.

But the desirability of having something larger than the two BBJs in the current fleet is made obvious by the government occasionally chartering the Australian Antarctic Division’s similarly sized Airbus A319 to fly tandem with the Prime Ministerial jet on some domestic missions.

The Dassault Falcon 900 featured in The Telegraph today is a wonderful jet for a Prime Minister that doesn’t want to fly anywhere with any of the parliamentary gallery in tow.  The same could be said for similarly highly desirable smaller but capable corporate jets like the Bombardier Global Express or the Gulfstream G650, or jets from the Embraer corporate range.

The current VIP fleet consists of three Challenger 604 jets, one of which is often used by the Governor-General.

It would not be surprising if both Airbus and Boeing try to pitch their respective BBJ or ACJ single aisle jets as replacements for the Challengers, since while these jets are much larger and roomier, they are not much more costly to acquire,  and you could fit the entire Canberra press gallery inside one of them and fly them one way to the Wilkins Blue Ice runway, in mid winter.

Renewing the BBJ fleet and increasing it to cover the Challenger roles might well be an option, depending on how the evaluation and negotiation process goes.

However if the PM of the day wants to be able to hold a media briefing for the core of the gallery on the one jet, and fly with the essential complement of senior mandarins and secretaries on board at the same time, the answer is most likely going to be an Airbus A330 or a Boeing 777, with a little less corporate bling in the cabin features in return for more flexibility in deployment for other roles such as relief or evacuation missions in times of national or regional emergencies.

Which was essentially how the RAAF 707s were seen, until they became simply too old to justify the servicing costs of keeping them safe and reliable.

*Actually ….. see comments.

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  • 1
    Luke Miller
    Posted December 9, 2012 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    It sounds like a conflict of interest for journalists to fly on a government jet.

  • 2
    ltfisher
    Posted December 9, 2012 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    Whatever decision is made the first priority must be given to the use of te aircraft by the Prime Minister, or senior ministers,and, as needed, the GG. It seems to me that most of the press crowd seem to regard it as essential for their life to be perpetually up close to the PM, especially on overseas trips. Most who go on these trips demonstrate little interest or skill in the area of foreign affairs and go along for the ride. Evidence of this is the appalling way in which press conferences for accompanying media when overseas these days seem to focus almost solely on domestic issues. I believe that the answer has to be for the media to travel in a separate aircraft, or make other arrangements. Who know their employers might decide to upgrade the travel conditions of staff covering overseas events. On the other hand they might also decide that they don’t really need to send so many to cover the trip. Let the PM have one aircraft to her/himself after all it is their office, and indeed home when long and very tiring travel is involved.

  • 3
    Ben Sandilands
    Posted December 9, 2012 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

    Unless there have been modifications made post Howard, the Australian PM’s BBJ would have to be the most uncomfortable in service. JH was paranoid about criticism of a ‘luxury’ VIP transport, and had the private office and sleeping space he would normally use rendered impossible to sleep in, since your legs were under a conference table, and the seats for reporters and support staff and departmental staff struggled to reach the standard of premium economy or Jetstar Star class.

    The criticism of the gallery journalists flying to the other side of the world to hold local issue Q and As with the PM is apt. But also a result of the PM of the day’s choice of media strategy.

    Reporters who fly with the PM or other ministers on the jet have always had that carriage paid for at Qantas business class rates by their employer. They have been dudded, in terms of comfort, but they are not employed to be comfortable either. On occasions the PM’s office has also released statements in Australia that are newsworthy, yet the reporters flying with the PM, including from memory the last two PMs, have sometimes arrived on said dark side of the planet hours out of touch with developments at home and find themselves struggling to be relevant in their interviews given the story having already become old. Sometimes this seems to be because of incompetence in the PM’s office, rather than an attempt by the PM to make the gallery reporters look like fools.

    Ultimately it is a question of style and tactics for the PM of the day. Since the jet fleet contract will almost certainly last longer than the tenure of an individual holder of that office, let’s hope the investment is in a jet that can be worked usefully for a whole range of things, such as disaster relief, or military logistics support, when not being used or misused for political puppetry.

  • 4
    Rais
    Posted December 10, 2012 at 2:26 am | Permalink

    “…you could fit the entire Canberra press gallery inside one of them and fly them one way to the Wilkins Blue Ice runway, in mid winter.” Sounds like a plan. Could you fit all the MPs in as well?

  • 5
    reeves35
    Posted December 10, 2012 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    SQ are trading in their fleet of A340-500s to Airbus over the next year. This should provide an ideal opportunity for the Australian Government to acquire a very capable plane for these VIP duties.

    This is always politically tricky but it is essential that we have a reliable VIP fleet for our senior leaders.

  • 6
    Kevin Johson
    Posted December 10, 2012 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    “There are no A340-500s, arguably the most versatile ultra long range jet ever built, available for sale, ”
    have a look at globalplanesearch.com.Heaps, including some with few hours.

  • 7
    Kevin Johson
    Posted December 10, 2012 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    Actually,I agree that the A340 would be ideal.Also they are selling as a discounted price compared with the A330.

  • 8
    Flyer Solo
    Posted December 10, 2012 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    VIP jet stories always highlight the sad and moronic state of Australia’s political media. Seems yesterday was a very slow news day for the press gallery. The silly season has began.

    Australian Prime Ministers are very frequent flyers covering big distances at home and overseas. Given the amount of hours they – and many senior government officials accompanying them – spend in the air, a modern and appropriate RAAF-operated plane for PM is a must and not a luxury.

    Given that RAAF has 5 x KC-30As (A330-200 multi-role tankers), it would surely make sense for the PM’s plane to also be an A330-200?

    Given the role of the plane, it must properly be fitted with:

    * secure data, voice and teleconference communications links into Australian Government networks, including to military command and intelligence networks – decisions don’t stop being made because the PM is flying!

    * functional and comfortable office space for PM and traveling senior officials

    * facilities to operate in austere / remote environments (ie. Extra medical means, catering capacity for unforeseen events, access points for airfields with no air stairs/aerobridges)

    * security capacity for accompanying Federal Police or RAAF Security Police guards, including a small weapon hold onboard.

    Maybe given our distance away from world, perhaps capability to be air-refuelled should be considered. Comfort should be akin to QF A380 first, business and premium economy amenities.

    Our PM doesn’t need an Air Force One like plane, but the plane should enable full functionality for the job anywhere in world and cater for unexpected events. The BBJs don’t do that.

    It’s not a luxury.

  • 9
    Jackson Harding
    Posted December 10, 2012 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    Is the A345 really the jet of choice? The B77L and B77W have more or less the same range, but as it only has two engines it is significantly cheaper to operate. The B772 does not have quite the same range and this may impose some operational limitations. An A332 will impose serious range limitations, unless as suggested the aircraft is capable of mid air refuelling. However the cost of tanker sorties to refuel the PM in flight would pay for a B777 (any type) several times over.

    A345/B772/B77W/B77L any of the these would be the right aircraft in terms of space and range. Enough space for decent office and sleeping accommodation for the VIP, their support staff (the equivalent of QF first class seats), plus decent (a nice lie flat business class seat) for all the hangers on, and one stop to anywhere in the globe. The B77L lightly loaded could probably go most places non-stop, but perhaps not with a full fuel load from Canberra? Would have to check on that one.

  • 10
    Tremere
    Posted December 10, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    No doubt the B77L or W would be better, but the depressed market values of the A340′s caused by those 777 models would make them an attractive acquisition target (hopefully offsetting the increased fuel cost)

  • 11
    Ben Sandilands
    Posted December 10, 2012 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    Some years ago Boeing showed me how a 777-200ER with up to 80 people on board could operate non-stop from Canberra to Washington DC. So anything it could do could be done better by the -200LR, keeping in mind that the structural weight of the LR is higher.There is little doubt that the -200LR and the A345 could fly a reasonable VIP payload non-stop to anywhere, but the costs would never be commercially attractive.

    The ‘comfort’ or planning security factor for the A345 is however what happens when one engine has to be throttled back for any reason. As often seen with big four engined jets, and this was true right back to their small forerunners in the 707, DC-8 and even Comet IVs, they could can hang onto high altitude cruise levels on three engines quite well. On a big twin you suddenly have a major drop in available cruise altitude, and the fuel consumption becomes severely impacted because of the drag of a dead wide diameter engine. These are among the reasons why the normal operating procedure with the loss of engine on a big twin is to land at the first opportunity.

    Interesting to note however that the American President has been seen in some TV coverage in recent years flying long distances in the northern hemisphere in a Boeing 757, and that a 757 is often the back up to the 744, as was the case when Obama last visited this country.

  • 12
    Tyler T
    Posted December 10, 2012 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

    why should the damn journalists be sent overseas on the PM’s plane. What a waste of money

  • 13
    TN Kangaroo (Blue Tail)
    Posted December 10, 2012 at 9:20 pm | Permalink

    Ben how will this effect the QANTAS SPA program ? or is it something me olde mate Jocey boy is willing to give up on, due to so called inefficient QANTAS engineering work practices.

  • 14
    Achmad Osman
    Posted December 11, 2012 at 1:26 am | Permalink

    Today the conventional wisdom appears to be that big twins offer fuel efficiencies which are very attractive to airlines. As a passenger, Personally, I prefer a quad for safety and peace of mind – too bad that they are being replaced rapidly.
    The security needs of a head of state in my mind has to trump fuel efficiency – so I agree with the author and some commentators that an A340, (even a A342) especially a previously used one – has to be the best compromise.
    There may even be a spare A340 in Toulouse that could be picked up for half the asking price of a B777.

  • 15
    Hastings R H
    Posted December 11, 2012 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    “the American President has been seen in some TV coverage in recent years flying long distances in the northern hemisphere in a Boeing 757, and that a 757 is often the back up to the 744″

    Not sure what “long distances” suggests, but the US President normally flies aboard a VC-25 (747) with another VC-25 as backup. A VC-32 (757) is normally used by the Vice President or the President’s staff (Secretary of State, Defence, etc). Occasionally, the US President will fly aboard smaller “VC” aircraft (e.g. VC-32, C-37) on short distances, but rarely, and for short flights (e.g. DC-NY, DC to Chicago).

  • 16
    Steve777
    Posted December 11, 2012 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    Just imagine the field day the press will have if Julia Gillard acquires a brand new jet, whatever the justification. I can just see the screaming banner headlines on the Daily Telegraph now, with a picture of a beaming PM, the shiny interior of the new jet and a glum looking family who can’t afford school fees/electricity/food because of the ‘carbon tax’. Anyway, why buy a bigger jet so that her enemies (most of the media contingent) can fly with her. I think the decision can be left for another year.

  • 17
    Xoanon
    Posted December 11, 2012 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    Can someone please fix this typo on the Crikey front page: “PM in the market for a new plane: some pionters“? Driving me crazy.

  • 18
    Rufus
    Posted December 11, 2012 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    given the low number of hours a VIP jet would operate compared to a commercial jet, buying a cheap A340 which burns a bit more fuel would probably be far cheaper in the long run than an expensive but more frugal 777.

    also, an A340 would be cheaper to crew, since the RAAF would have some commonality with its A330s.

  • 19
    TomM
    Posted December 13, 2012 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    In regards to mid-air refueling, as far as am aware, the VC-25s have never been mid-air refueled with a President aboard due to the risk of collision between the VC-25 and tanker. Practice is done often of course in case of a situation where the President needs to sit in the plane aloft for a few days, but it is not done as part of normal practice. I would guess that it would be a similar situation for any Australian plane. Also there would likely be marginal payoff involved between the cost of fitting the planes with a mid-air refueling system and the benefit of flying non-stop.

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