When it comes to traveling in style, no-one does it better than global leaders. With the need to travel comfortably, productively, and safely – and budgets to make this happen – many leaders have some amazing aircraft. This article takes a look at some of the best currently in the air, along with a few others that deserve a mention.
Table of Contents
- Presidential travel – a quick history
- The United States – ‘Air Force One’ Boeing VC25A
- Saudi Arabia – Prince Al Waleed’s luxurious 747
- Brunei – The Sultan of Brunei’s A340 (and more)
- Russia – Ilyushin widebody Il-96
- Germany – A350s replacing A340s
- France – A330-200
- India – ‘Air India One’ Boeing 777-300s
- Japan – Japanese Air Force One and Two
- UK – Airbus A330, but not the most extravagant
- North Korea – Ilyushin Il-62 – the oldest Presidential aircraft
- Mexico – Boeing 787 – the most unwanted
Presidential travel – a quick history
Presidential and head of state air travel was relatively rare before the Second World War. According to a historical article in the New York Times, the first leader to get airborne was King Ferdinand of Bulgaria, who flew when visiting Belgium in 1910.
The first to use aircraft for official travel was likely the UK Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who regularly flew over the channel in British made Airco DH4 biplanes from 1919.
The British were also the first to introduce dedicated VIP aircraft. Two aircraft were taken on by the RAF for Royal and government service in 1928, becoming known as the King’s Flight from 1936.
In the US, Franklin Roosevelt became the first serving President to fly (according to the National Museum of the US Air Force). He flew to Morocco in 1943 on a Pan American World Airways crewed Boeing 314.
The first dedicated aircraft to carry the President was a modified Douglas C-54 Skymaster, nicknamed the ‘Sacred Cow.’ Franklin Roosevelt used this in 1945, to attend the Yalta Conference in the Soviet Union, for discussions regarding the postwar situation in Europe.
Today, many countries have some form of dedicated transport, often operated in association with the military. Quite a few countries don’t have such aircraft, though, instead using commercial options or hiring aircraft when needed. Some notable countries that don’t operate dedicated aircraft include:
- China (although a 747-8 operated by Air China is on the way)
- Israel (a 767-300 is being introduced, but currently El Al aircraft are leased)
- New Zealand (Air Force operated 757 aircraft are available, but Air New Zealand charters are more commonly used)
Some VIP aircraft remain quite simple, while others have developed to become flying offices or even palaces. We take a look here at just a few of the most outstanding aircraft.
The United States – ‘Air Force One’ Boeing VC25A
The US President’s transport needs no introduction. Without a doubt, it is the most recognized and well-known amongst all VIP aircraft. It is also one of the best-equipped and most expensive, a suitable start to our review.
Air Force One refers to the callsign used when the President is aboard any aircraft. It has been used since 1953 when the aircraft in use then (a Lockheed Constellation aircraft, named ‘Columbine II’) became confused with a commercial Eastern Air Lines flight. Several aircraft have been used, including a Lockheed Super Constellation and modified 707 aircraft.
The current main aircraft used are variants of the Boeing 747-200, known as VC25A. These iconic blue and white aircraft were introduced in 1990. These are officially named SAM (Special Air Mission) 28000 and SAM 29000.
First Lady Nancy Reagan designed the interiors, apparently to recall her native US Southwest home. It is a true White House in the sky, with sleeping and working space for the Presidential family, a conference room, working and meeting areas for staff, and a press section. Simple Flying took a detailed look through the aircraft in a previous article.
There are plenty of features that a normal 747 does not have. It has defense countermeasures to disrupt heat-seeking missiles, technology to jam radar, and extensive communications facilities. It can also be refueled inflight.
The US will soon have a new and improved Air Force One. The current VC25A aircraft are being replaced by 747-8I aircraft. These are currently undergoing extensive refit (they are being modified from aircraft ordered by failed Russian airline Transaero).
We have yet to see what the aircraft will look like inside, but some reports suggest that President Trump has called for a more lavish interior – and larger beds. He also wants the color scheme changed for the first time since 1962.
Saudi Arabia – Prince Al Waleed’s luxurious 747
For opulence and likely price, the top place has to go to Saudi Arabian Prince Al Waleed’s extremely lavish Boeing 747. This was purchased in 2003, at a cost of $485 million (for comparison, the US VC25A aircraft cost $325 million each).
It has been refitted to match his palatial home. This is less about offices and meeting space and more about relaxation and opulence. There are luxurious bedrooms and bathrooms, a dining area for 14 people, extensive lounge areas, and a large throne for the Prince. There is plenty of gold trim decoration and even a large chandelier.
But even the best aircraft need an upgrade eventually, and this came close with interest for a private A380 in 2007. According to reporting by Forbes, the Prince negotiated the list price down by 50%, but the financial crisis of 2008-2009 ended his hopes.
It would have been even more extravagant, though. Reported plans for the interior include a lift to the Prince’s private suite, a Hamman bath area, a rotating prayer space that could turn to face Mecca, and, naturally, a parking garage for a Rolls-Royce.
Brunei – The Sultan of Brunei’s A340 (and more)
Sticking with opulence, the Sultan of Brunei owns a whole fleet of aircraft for his travels. Until recently, the most frequently used was an A340-200, used by the Sultan for long-haul travel.
This was delivered in 1994 and retired in 2018 (according to Planespotters.net). Inside it is fitted out with bedrooms, showers, and dining areas. You can see inside on this rare clip from Brunei television:
The family went after another A340 in 2008. A unique A340-8000 was destined for the Sultan’s brother, but this has never happened, and it eventually found a home with the Saudi Arabian Royal Fleet. It was derived from the A340-200 but fitted with auxiliary fuel tanks to increase the range to 14,800 kilometers (enough for a direct flight from Brunei to the USA or Europe).
The most recent additions to the fleet are a 747-8I aircraft, added in 2016, and a 787 aircraft in 2019. These have been seen in operation, but little is known about their interior.
Uniquely amongst leaders, the Sultan is also a qualified pilot. He can (and does) fly the A340, the 747s, other aircraft in his fleet, and occasionally even commercial flights with Royal Brunei Airlines.
Russia – Ilyushin widebody Il-96
The Russian President uses a well-equipped Ilyushin aircraft, the Il-96. According to Stratos Jet’s list, Putin comes in second place for the amount spent on travel.
The Il-96 is much newer than the US’s 747s. The latest was delivered in 2013. And there are also more. There are four identical Il-96 aircraft, often all flying together to disguise which aircraft the President is onboard.
Much of the interior design and fittings are kept secret. But what we have seen is very luxurious. There are fur rugs and Russian tapestries, and paintings on the walls. The President has a bedroom with a king-sized bed, a bathroom with bidet and gold trimming, and even a gym.
It is also technically well equipped. It has a full communications suite and air defense countermeasures. There is also reportedly some form of escape pod.
— Legit.ng (@legitngnews) July 19, 2018
Germany – A350s replacing A340s
German Chancellor Angela Merkel probably has the best aircraft of a European leader. A new flagship A350-900 has been added to the government fleet in 2020 to replace the previous aircraft, an A340.
Ultimately, there will be three A350 aircraft in the government fleet. The first was delivered in August 2020. The second was still undergoing test flights as of November 2020. These are the first A350 aircraft to be used in non-commercial service.
However, we will have to wait to see what the interior of the new A350 will look like. The first aircraft was delivered with a temporary cabin to get it into service quicker. The next two will be fully fitted out with office space, cabins, and seating before the first one is then re-fitted similarly.
The previous aircraft, known as Konrad Adenauer, is certainly impressive. It features bedrooms, offices, and lounges. It even apparently has a soundproof room. And, of course, missile defense and extensive communications features.
Hopefully, the new A350 will be more reliable too. In a well-publicized incident in 2018, Merkel arrived late for a G20 summit in Buenos Aires after Konrad Adenauer developed technical problems. She had to switch to a commercial flight with Iberia. Simple Flying even reported at the time on comments from her surprised seatmate!
France – A330-200
The French presidential fleet’s primary VIP transport is an A330-200. It also operates several A310 and two A340 aircraft. The A330 was introduced in 2011, converted from previous passenger use by Swissair. It takes the callsign COTAM 001 when in official use. Like many other presidential aircraft, it is designed both as a transport and operational center, fitted out with full communications facilities.
There is a bedroom and office space for the President, a large soundproofed meeting area, and a series of business class and economy class seating. This video from French media gives a great peek inside:
India – ‘Air India One’ Boeing 777-300s
Along with Germany, India has some of the newest presidential aircraft. In October 2020, it received the first of two dedicated 777-300 aircraft. Before that, 747-400s from Air India were used.
These 777s previously served with Air India and have been undergoing refit in the US since 2018. We have yet to see the interiors. These are so far closely guarded. Simple Flying reported in November 2020 about the Air India crew who were suspended for sharing pictures of the aircraft taken during a delivery flight.
But we know they feature a range of technical improvements, including a Special Protection Suite capable of jamming enemy radar frequencies, diverting heat-seeking missiles, and intercepting missile systems without any crew interventions.
Japan – Japanese Air Force One and Two
We don’t hear a great deal about Japan’s VIP transport, which shares several similarities with America’s Air Force One. It uses two aircraft, designed to be used by both the Prime Minister and the Japanese Imperial family. And they use the callsigns Japanese Air Force One and Japanese Air Force Two.
The first two aircraft used were modified 747-400 aircraft, ordered in 1987 and entering service in 1991. Boeing assembled these at the same time as the US 747s, but these are based on the 747-400, whereas the US chose to modify the 747-200.
They were fitted out with a VIP cabin at the front of the lower deck, followed by seating and office space. Both the rear cabin and the upper deck were fitted with close to standard seating. This allowed dual of the aircraft for overseas evacuation or troop deployment missions.
The 747s were replaced by two 777-300 aircraft in 2018. These only started service in mid-2019, and we have yet to see details of their fitting. We know from Japanese media that they contain private cabins and office space, as well as 21 business class-style seats and 85 economy seats.
After the 747s were decommissioned, the interiors were shown to the media (and one of the main cabins went on museum display). You can see them in this great video from Japanese TV.
A few other aircraft fall outside the realms of ‘crazy’ or ‘extravagant’ but are certainly worth a mention:
UK – Airbus A330, but not the most extravagant
The UK Prime Minister, and members of the Royal Family, are looked after by the Royal Air Force’s 32nd squadron. The main VIP aircraft is an Airbus A330, known as the RAF Voyager. When not in use for VIP travel, this serves as an air refueller for the Royal Air Force.
It is much less overwhelming than other leaders’ transports. There are no luxurious cabins or extensive office space. Instead, there is simply a series of standard cabins – with 58 business class-style seats and 100 economy.
It raised some controversy too in 2020 when it received a new $1m paint job. It was repainted from standard military grey into red, white, and blue UK colors.
North Korea – Ilyushin Il-62 – the oldest Presidential aircraft
The North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, travels on one of two Russian-built Ilyushin Il-62 aircraft. These are dedicated and fitted out for VIP travel but operated by Air Koryo. It takes the callsign Chammae-1 when the leader is onboard.
It has been in service for 39 years. This makes it not only the oldest aircraft in Presidential use but one of the oldest jets still flying. Simple Flying looked at the oldest aircraft still in commercial service, and only found five older than this – four 737-200 aircraft used by Nolinor, Air Inuit, and Venezolana; and an Iran Air A300.
It is far from certain how much use it has had, though. The Kim family has rarely traveled far, and previous leaders have preferred train travel to aircraft. And even when it does fly, the leader may not be onboard. The Telegraph discussed its use when Kim Jong-un visited Singapore in 2018 for a summit with Donald Trump, noting that it may just have been used as a decoy whilst he flew on an Air China 747.
Mexico – Boeing 787 – the most unwanted
The Mexican presidential 787-8 aircraft, known as ‘José María Morelos y Pavón,’ stands out for both its cost and controversy around it.
President Enrique Peña Nieto introduced it to replace an aging 757 in Presidential service. It was estimated to have cost around $218 million, certainly at the high end of presidential aircraft costs.
But the current President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador sees this as lavish and wasteful, apparently preferring to travel commercially. Since 2019, he has been trying to sell it. Other options (with sales struggling) have included giving it away as a raffle prize or leasing it out by the hour. Possibly uniquely though amongst world leaders, he certainly doesn’t want to use it.
Have you seen any of these VIP transport aircraft or any others we have not covered? Let us know in the comments.