Who’s got the biggest plane? See the VIP jets of world leaders

Jun 27, 2020

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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.

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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.

Great Britain

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.

BIARRITZ, FRANCE - AUGUST 24: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson disembarks a plane as he arrives as Biarritz Pays Basque Airport for the G7 summit on August 24, 2019 in Biarritz, France. The French southwestern seaside resort of Biarritz is hosting the 45th G7 summit from August 24 to 26. High on the agenda will be the climate emergency, the US-China trade war, Britain's departure from the EU, and emergency talks on the Amazon wildfire crisis. (Photo by Dylan Martinez - Pool/Getty Images)
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson arriving in Biarritz, France, for the G7 summit on August 24, 2019. (Photo by Dylan Martinez – Pool/Getty Images)

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.

India 

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”.

The Air India 747 transporting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives at Ben-Gurion International airport near Tel Aviv on July 4, 2017. (Photo by Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)
The Air India 747 transporting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives at Ben-Gurion International airport near Tel Aviv on July 4, 2017. (Photo by Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

United States

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.

Air Force One after it landed on July 13, 2017 at Paris' Orly airport with President Donald Trump and First lady Melania onboard. (Photo by Thomas SamsonAFP/Getty Images)
Air Force One after it landed on July 13, 2017 at Paris’ Orly airport with President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump onboard. (Photo by Thomas SamsonAFP/Getty Images)

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.

IN FLIGHT - APRIL 5: In this handout provide by the White House, U.S. President Barack Obama (L) talks with his staff aboard Air Force One during the flight from Prague, Czech Republic en route to Ankara, Turkey on April 5, 2009 in flight. Obama is serving as the 44th President of the U.S. and the first African-American to be elected to the office of President in the history of the United States. (Photo by Pete Souza/White House via Getty Images)
President Barack Obama talks with his staff aboard Air Force One during a flight from Prague, Czech Republic en route to Ankara, Turkey on April 5, 2009. (Photo by Pete Souza/White House via Getty Images)

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.

Marine One with President Donald Trump and decoy helicopters pass the Kuwaiti VIP 747 while flying to Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base on September 6, 2017. (Photo by Brendan Swalovski/AFP/Getty Images)
Marine One with President Donald Trump and decoy helicopters pass the Kuwaiti VIP 747 while flying to Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base on September 6, 2017. (Photo by Brendan Swalovski/AFP/Getty Images)

Mexico 

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.

President Enrique Pena Nieto arrives on the Mexican Air Force 787 in Cali, Colombia, on June 29, 2017. (Photo by Lokman Ilhan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
President Enrique Pena Nieto arrives on the Mexican Air Force 787 in Cali, Colombia, on June 29, 2017. (Photo by Lokman Ilhan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

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.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador goes through the security area before boarding a commercial flight at Mexico City's international airport T2 on February 15, 2019. - Anti-establishment Lopez Obrador adpoted aggressive austerity measures for his government, including slashing his own salary, disbanding the presidential security detail and flying commercial airlines for official trips. (Photo by Alfredo ESTRELLA / AFP) (Photo credit should read ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP via Getty Images)
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador goes through the security area before boarding a commercial flight at Mexico City’s international airport T2 on February 15, 2019. (Photo by ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP via Getty Images)

Morocco

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.  

The Abu Dhabi 747-8 landing at the Hamburg airport, Germany (Screen cap from YouTube)
The Abu Dhabi 747-8 landing at Hamburg airport in Germany, before being donated to Morocco. (Screen cap from YouTube)

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.

Germany

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.

(Screen shot from YouTube)
(Screen shot from YouTube)

Russia

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.

A guard stands before a plane carrying Russia's then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as it arrives at Beijing International Airport on October 11, 2011. (Photo by Liu Jin/AFP/Getty Images)
A guard stands before a plane carrying Russia’s then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as it arrives at Beijing International Airport on October 11, 2011. (Photo by Liu Jin/AFP/Getty Images)

North Korea

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.

A North Korean lyushin Il-62 taking off during the first Wonsan Friendship Air Festival, in September 2016. Just weeks after carrying out its fifth nuclear test, North Korea put on an unprecedented civilian and military air force display at the country's first ever public aviation show.(Photo by Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)
A North Korean lyushin Il-62 taking off during the first Wonsan Friendship Air Festival, in September 2016. (Photo by Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

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

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.

The Swiss Air Force Falcon showing its built-in stairs. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)
The Swiss Air Force Falcon showing its built-in stairs. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Brunei

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.

Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah in the captain's seat of his 747 on his arrival in New Delhi on May 20, 2008 on a state visit to India (Photo by Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)
Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah in the captain’s seat of his 747 on his arrival in New Delhi on May 20, 2008, on a state visit to India. (Photo by Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)

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.

Japan

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.

The new government Boeing 777-300 ER (R) is shown to the press at the Japan Air Self-Defense Force's base in Chitose, Hokkaido, on Dec. 6, 2018. On the left is the current Boeing 747. (Kyodo)==Kyodo (Photo by Kyodo News Stills via Getty Images)
The new government Boeing 777-300 ER (right) is shown to the press at the Japan Air Self-Defense Force’s base in Chitose, Hokkaido, on Dec. 6, 2018. On the left are the Boeing 747s being replaced. (Photo by Kyodo)

Besides the emperor, the 777s also fly the prime minister and other top officials. They fly with the call sign “Japanese Air Force One.”

Austria

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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