The failure of the prime ministerial jet yesterday — it broke down on the tarmac — is a timely reminder that it might be time to upgrade.
As Defence Minister, Senator David Johnston was unwise to blame Labor for the failure of Tony Abbott’s VIP fleet to leave for Indonesia on time yesterday for his meeting with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
The two Boeing Business jets in question are less than 10 years old, and are closely based on the widely used and incredibly reliable Boeing 737, which airlines such as Qantas and Virgin Australia fly for as much as 13 hours a day. These planes sometimes perform eight takeoffs or landings a day on high-frequency routes like Melbourne to Sydney.
It is inexcusable that the RAAF VIP fleet cannot manage its third-party maintenance contracts for two 737 airframes to get a more reliable outcome. It’s a Defence responsibility, meaning the reliability of the jets is Johnston’s responsibility, and deflecting his embarrassment on past Labor mismanagement is more than a bit rich.
The two BBJs and another three smaller Challenger 604 VIP jets are operated by the RAAF’s No34 squadron and are officially known as “special purpose aircraft”.
When John Howard heeded the advice that he was likely to die in the genuinely clapped-out old Boeing 707s that preceded his approval to buy the BBJs, he was terrified of voter backlash over the indulgence of buying luxury corporate jets for politicians.
The result was two of the most uncomfortably configured low seat-density BBJs ever to escape from a Boeing factory.
Howard specified a very basic level of seating comfort, even in the forward private PM’s compartment, in which the centrepiece on delivery was two sets of facing seats divided by a thick timber table under which any First Bloke’s legs would be trapped if any attempt was made to fully recline the seat and sleep.
The limited seating for members of the press gallery at the back of the BBJs struggles to meet the standards of amenity of premium economy seating on a Qantas 747 or Jetstar A330, and smart political hacks choose if possible to fly commercially on a business class ticket if they can get one out of Rupert these days, since BBJ flights are charged to the media at a business class fare.
There is a case for the prime minister of Australia to have a VIP jet large enough to carry a significant entourage of advisors, officials and lowly fourth estate representatives rather than have to split the load between two jets, or the PM’s jet plus a commercial flight or charter, as has often been necessary.
Johnston has reason to wish Labor had made this decision for him, rather than renewing the existing contract before the last election, no doubt because of its own concerns about voter perceptions of pollies treating themselves to fancy aircraft.
When Garuda flight GA200 crashed at Yogyakarta on March 7, 2007, killing an Australian Financial Review reporter, two Australian Federal Police officers and two Australian foreign affairs officials, as well as 18 other people, they were on the flight because there was no room in the VIP fleet Boeing BBJ that was carrying then-foreign affairs minister Alexander Downer and attorney general Philip Ruddock.
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 carry a senior government party and support staff and a typical press gallery media contingent.
Those calls were repeated during the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd government, including suggestions that two of the five Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transports 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 BBJs took over their VIP roles in 2004.
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.
Maybe an interesting conversation with Clive Palmer is coming up when the Abbott government decides to trade the BBJs in on something more becoming of the prime minister.
Palmer is the only MP known to have a small fleet of jets at his command, two of them painted in Mineralogy colours, as well as the Global Express jet he appears to most frequently use for his own purposes.
The member for Fairfax even owns an aircraft leasing company, Palmair LLC, in the US. Could there be a VIP jet-driven detente in the air? In the coming Parliament and the new Senate, anything is possible.