Who’s got the biggest plane? See the VIP jets of world leaders
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This is an updated version of a story originally published in September 2017.
Many countries have in their air force’s inventory one or more aeroplanes used to transport their leaders and other government figures. They are, typically, modified versions of the passenger jets you’re familiar with from your own flights. Besides VIP interior cabins, they feature secure communications and often anti-missile defence systems too. Not only are they not subject to the schedules and cancellations of commercial airlines, but they can function as command centres in a crisis. And like the countries that operate them, they come in all sizes and capabilities —which makes them a sort of visual ambassador, too, signifying power and influence.
President Donald Trump showed that he was very much aware of this when he hosted the Emir of Kuwait in 2017. The Emir, Trump complained, had flown into Washington 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, which measures about 75 feet shorter than the Emir’s Boeing 747-8. But presidents of the United States do not fly around on their private jets, even if they happen to own one. They fly one of two specially modified 747s that are almost as long as the Emir’s, and equipped with more sophisticated electronics.
The U.S. Air Force is getting two new 747s, in fact, to take the place of its current ones. It’s modifying them for the job of carrying the president, in a long and very, very expensive process that indicates just how different from their civilian counterparts those government jets can be.
Here’s a look at some of the planes that ferry presidents, prime ministers, kings, queens and even one emperor around the world.
The prime minister, top government officials and even senior royals travel on a Royal Air Force Airbus Voyager for official engagements. The jet has been in the news lately when Prime Minister Boris Johnson decided that its grey colour scheme, common to military aircraft, was too dull and ordered its repainting into red, white and blue — at a cost of £900,000, sparking controversy.
It’s basically a militarized version of the Airbus A330-200 commercial transport, used mostly as a tanker. The British government added missile-defence systems and hardened communications. The plane still carries its original RAF livery, and when not in use by government officials flies its original mission: mid-air refuelling.
Before the Voyager entered service in 2016, the government leased commercial aircraft, typically from British Airways, when needed for official missions. The dedicated A330 is cheaper, according to government figures.
While the Boeing 747’s days of carrying civilian passenger are numbered, the Queen of the Skies hasn’t gone out of style among heads of state and government. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for example, has access to an Air India 747-400. The plane is 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 TPG’s Zach Honig did on Air India’s 777-300ER. Aviation geeks can have fun tracking the jet, which has the registration VT-ESO. It does not fly often, and when it’s on government VIP duty it takes flight number AI1 — meaning air traffic controllers will address it with the cool call sign “Air India One”.
Speaking of cool 747s, the one the president of the United States usually flies 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 refuelled in flight and to possess missile-deflecting countermeasures.
Inside, both Air Force One jets — a call sign used only when the president is on board, and which applies to any U.S. Air Force aircraft, not just the VC-25As — are utilitarian more than luxurious affairs. The focus is on keeping the president and top officials able to work and rest and stay safe, not on over-the-top luxe. There are living and working quarters for the president and first spouse, conference areas and seating for other officials and media and even medical facilities — with 4,000 square feet of space, there is room for things you would never see on a commercial 747.
While the VC-25A may have the most advanced safety and communication systems among government jets, it’s not the latest 747 model nor the flashiest of the presidential VIP birds.
That Kuwaiti 747, for example? It’s a 747-8 BBJ, a “Boeing Business Jet” version of the 747-8, the latest and likely last model of Boeing’s four-engine long-ranger. It’s actually a bit longer than the VC-25A at 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 Ones, two converted 747-8s, enter service in 2024 with the designation VC-25B. They were built for but never delivered to failed Russian airline Transaero, and have been bought by the Pentagon after being parked for a while.
The president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has been trying unsuccessfully to sell the government’s Boeing 787, which the Mexican Air Force scooped up at bargain prices back in 2014. This was an early-build 787-8 that Boeing 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. Built in 2009 and used for tests, this 787 sat unsold for five years. And when you’re flying just a few passengers in a VIP configuration — not a planeload of 200 people and their luggage — some excessive weight is really not an issue
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, it was a good deal even when factoring in the cost of conversion to a presidential-grade jet. But for the populist Mexican president, the Dreamliner bought by his predecessor Enrique Peña Nieto is a symbol of waste.
So how does President Obrador get around? The Mexican Air Force has smaller and less intrusive planes, like Gulfstream business jets, but the president is also not above flying commercial. That guy in the security line at the Mexico City airport in this file photo from February 2019? That’s the president all right, on a domestic flight to Culiacán.
The North African kingdom punches way above its weight when it comes to government VIP jets. King Mohamed VI uses a Boeing 747-8, among a large fleet of planes and helicopters, which was donated by the government of Abu Dhabi, the richest of the seven United Arab Emirates.
The Abu Dhabi Amiri Flight Fleet, which flies the royal family and high officials of Abu Dhabi, could afford to make a grand gesture: it has six VIP jets left, including two 777s.
Donating 747-8s to friendly governments appears to be a thing among wealthy Gulf rulers: in 2018, Qatar gave one to Turkey. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been flying it all over the world since then.
The largest economy in Europe also has the largest government jet in the European Union. Embarrassed by the frequent mechanical failures of the air force’s used Airbus A340s, which once stranded Chancellor Angela Merkel making her late for a major summit, the federal government has bought two new A350s — the only ones in the world used as VIP transports.
It can be easy to forget that Boeing and Airbus aren’t the only aeroplane manufacturers out there. The 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 Russia’s 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 Il-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, has the real AvGeek gem here: an Ilyushin Il-62M, the plane that brought long-haul nonstop jet travel to the USSR in the 1960s. The Ilyushin may not be in great shape, though. When Kim flew to Singapore in 2018 to meet with President Trump, he got a lift from Air China on a 747.
Sanctions on North Korea mean that the isolated totalitarian regime cannot import European or U.S aircraft, so its national airline Air Koryo and its government VIP fleet make do with truly vintage aeroplanes made in the Soviet Union. Bonus for aviation enthusiasts: North Korea, while a nightmare for human rights, is a paradise for rare aircraft. To see most of them, though, you have to go there.
Switzerland is one of the few countries whose economic power is not matched by an equally large presidential plane. Its government VIP plane is a Dassault Falcon 900EX, which flies members of the Swiss Federal Council and other top officials. The Falcon is tiny compared to a large jet, but it goes almost as far and 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 has since been upgraded, in 2018, with a 747-8, joining a Boeing 767 and a 787. The old 747-400 is currently stored in the desert in Marana, Arizona.
The one nation in the world that still has an emperor requires an aeroplane that can fly him in style. That’s why Japan has not one but two Boeing 777-300ERs, flying in what might well be the most elegant livery of any aeroplane. They took the place in 2019 of two equally beautiful 747-400s.
Besides the emperor, the 777s also fly the prime minister and other top officials. They fly with the call sign “Japanese Air Force One.”
Mexico’s AMLO is not the only world leader flying commercial. For example, President Alexander van den Bellen of Austria didn’t bother with any of this VIP jet stuff to get to the United Nations General Assembly in 2017. There was a perfectly good Austrian Airlines flight linking Vienna and Newark airport, and that’s what he took — together, by mere chance, with our Executive Editorial Director Scott Mayerowitz in business class.
With reporting by Ethan Steinberg.
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