News & Politics

The Airplanes of World Leaders

Not all presidents fly in luxury like Air Force One.

The President’s blue-and-white Air Force One might be the world’s most recognizable airplane—the 747 is a symbol of America’s might—but not all leaders get to fly in such style.

When visiting heads of state touch down at Washington’s Andrews Air Force Base, they’re not always sitting, legs stretched out, in front of a plasma screen and a minibar. Sometimes they have to move their seat backs and tray tables into an upright position. Check out the rides that carry some of today’s most influential people to summits and other overseas destinations.


Nicolas Sarkozy finally got a plane he thinks is worthy of his presidential stature. Air Sarko One, or Air Carla One—nicknames European media have coined for the Airbus A330-200—began transporting the president and first lady Carla Bruni last November. The government bought the 12-year-old plane from the airline Air Caraibes and refurbished it for a reported $243 million. Sarkozy’s new ride boasts a top-shelf communications system and a 197.1-foot wingspan—about 1.3 feet greater than that of Air Force One. The plane was at first rumored to have a bathtub, a pizza oven, and an air-filtering system that would allow Sarkozy to smoke cigars. But French officials have dismissed those claims, saying that the plane is equipped with the amenities of an average corporate airliner.


Before Brazil’s first female president, Dilma Rousseff, began her term in January, she reportedly already had her eye on a new presidential plane. The problem? Her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, had bought one for himself in 2005. Rousseff’s proposed purchase of an Airbus 320 would cost roughly $300 million, according to reports out of Sao Paulo. It’s needed because Lula’s Airbus 319, nicknamed Aerolula, couldn’t reach Russia, India, and China without making a pit stop—something the former president called a “humiliation.” Rousseff, who for now is flying in her predecessor’s plane, made her first official visit to Argentina in January. She’s scheduled to travel to the US later this year.


Poland’s leadership has been leasing an Embraer ERJ-175 ever since one of its two Tupolev TU-154s crashed in Russia while carrying the late president Lech Kaczynski on April 10, 2010. For years, Polish citizens had noted that their leaders showed up for state visits in old Soviet-era planes they called “flying coffins.” A West Wing–like TV drama in Poland even depicted a fictional president dying in a plane crash in Afghanistan. Russian investigators have gone public with their crash report and blamed last year’s accident not on the plane but on the pilot’s decision to try to land during a storm. Kaczynski had once before complained when his pilot refused to land at his insistence.


Prime minister David Cameron made headlines in 2010 when he flew commercial for his first official visit to the United States. The UK is one of the few major countries that still don’t own a presidential fleet. Cameron’s predecessors, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, usually chartered flights for overseas travel.


When Chinese president Hu Jintao came to Washington for his January state visit, he rolled up not in a Soviet-era Tupelov plane but in an American-made Boeing 747. During his visit, he formally okayed the purchase of 200 Boeing aircraft, finalizing a deal worth $19 billion. That said, the Chinese government hasn’t always been a happy customer. In 2002, under then-president Jiang Zemin, China bought a Boeing 767 for presidential use and reportedly got more than it paid for: After having the plane retrofitted in Texas, Chinese security officials allegedly found more than 20 satellite-operated listening devices—including one in the headboard of Jiang’s in-flight bed. The 767 was rumored to have been quickly converted to commercial use.


President Goodluck Jonathan has one of the world’s largest head-of-state air fleets, but eight planes weren’t enough. The fleet was aging, and mechanical problems had once caused “an undignifying compulsory layover,” as Jonathan’s official blog put it, for the president when he tried to leave a conference in Uganda. In January, Jonathan appeared to back away from a plan to expand the fleet. An official told Africa’s BusinessDay Online that no jets would be bought in 2011. The three proposed aircraft—two Falcon 7X planes and a Gulfstream G550—would reportedly cost about $154 million.


President Pratibha Patil normally takes to the air in a Boeing for domestic and international travel. But in late 2009, at age 74, she donned a fighter pilot’s jumpsuit and climbed into a two-seat Sukhoi jet. She became the first woman in India to ride in a combat plane.


President Dmitry Medvedev has overseen an upgrade of his fleet with the purchase of two Tupolev TU-214s for medium-range flights. His predecessor, Vladimir Putin, is shown here on an older plane. The new Tupolevs’ only reported luxury is a high-tech onboard communications system. A press officer told media that there are no “refinements—like golden chairs.”


Chancellor Angela Merkel brought her fleet of aircraft into the 21st century—at a cost of $1.3 billion. Two European-made Airbus A340s and a pair of smaller A319s, among several other corporate jets, are replacing planes mostly built before the country’s reunification in 1990. Defending the purchase, the Green Party’s Winfried Hermann told Bloomberg that it was “almost embarrassing to see the heads of state of one of the world’s richest economies flying around in such antiquated aircraft.”


The most Pope Benedict XVI can hope for the next time he travels overseas is a row to himself. When parading through cities, he blesses people from a glassed-in perch inside a specially designed Mercedes ML 430, informally called the Popemobile. But when he flies, he travels in a chartered Alitalia Airbus A320.

This feature first appeared in the April 2011 issue of The Washingtonian. 

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