Merkel Gets VIP Fleet as Budget-Cutting Claims Greek, Irish Jets

Chancellor Angela Merkel will fly to meetings using a 1 billion-euro ($1.3 billion) jet fleet complete with conference rooms and missile-defense systems as budget cuts she helped broker force Ireland and Greece to ground planes.

Germany is swapping aircraft mostly pre-dating re-unification 20 years ago for two customized Airbus SAS A340 wide-bodies and a pair of smaller A319s fitted with first-class seats, a Defense Ministry spokesman said. The new fleet also includes four planes from the Global Express range described by Bombardier Inc. as the most luxurious corporate jets ever built.

The upgrade comes as Greece and Ireland dispose of government jets to free funds for debt reduction encouraged by Merkel. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron has to charter planes or use scheduled services. German politicians say the state fleet is not an appropriate target for belt-tightening.

“New planes will be highly expensive, but this investment is completely warranted,” said the Green Party’s Winfried Hermann, who chairs the parliamentary transport committee. “It's almost embarrassing to see the heads of state of one of the world's richest economies flying around in such antiquated aircraft.”

The German overhaul began last March and is scheduled for completion in the fourth quarter, the Defense Ministry said.

Smoking Wheels

The A340s, previously owned by Deutsche Lufthansa AG and with a range of more than 13,000 kilometers (8,000 miles), will be handed over from March to replace Airbus A310s bought by former East German ruler Erich Honecker before the Berlin Wall fell. New A319s and Global 5000s are replacing Bombardier Challenger CL-601s, a Defense Ministry spokesman said.

Former President Horst Koehler flew to Germany from Beijing on a commercial jet in 2008 after his A310 failed. The next year, Merkel was late for a European Union summit in Brussels when an overheated engine on a Challenger forced the pilot to land in Hanover en route from Berlin. Defense Minister Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg was evacuated in Kiev in 2010 on the way to Afghanistan after a Challenger’s landing gear began smoking.

The emphasis for the customization is on functionality, not on luxury, said the ministry spokesman, who asked not to be named, citing Defense Ministry policy. As they reach a certain age, the older planes become uneconomical, he said.

The A340s are being remodeled with a conference room, tables and seating for officials and guests, plus a coach-class style section in the rear for civil servants and delegates that can double as an emergency room to treat and transport wounded soldiers. Capacity will be cut to 142 seats from about 300.

Gray Leather

The A319s, handed over last year, have a VIP area equipped to first-class airline standards and are fitted with extra fuel tanks to extend their range to Washington and Beijing, said Volker Mais, a spokesman for the German air force unit that operates the state fleet. The design features light gray leather seats and a conference area with glossy dark-brown imitation wood tables and will be replicated in the A340s, he said.

Fitting out the planes at Lufthansa’s Technik engineering division in Hamburg costs 615 million euros, according to the air force website. The jets will also feature secure communication systems and some will later be equipped with missile-defense systems to foil terrorist attacks, Mais said.

Governments can no longer justify having dedicated aircraft waiting to fly officials around, said Howard Wheeldon, a senior strategist at BGC Partners in London.

Lufthansa Catering

“I don’t think it’s necessary for a state to own planes for the sole use of ministers, but it has to provide some kind of backup should ordinary airlines not be available,” he said.

On transatlantic and other long-haul trips in the current fleet’s A310s, Merkel typically brings along her chancellery aides, and sometimes as many as 20 business delegates and a similar number of journalists. On shorter trips within Europe, aides may outnumber reporters. Cabin attendants are male and female air-force personnel, with catering provided by Lufthansa.

In Greece, Prime Minister George Papandreou’s government plans to sell four Airbus A340s that flew with Olympic Airlines for 80 million euros as part of a state-asset disposal program. There is no decision yet on whether to remove remaining air force planes, which include a Gulfstream V from the private-jet unit of General Dynamics Corp., a ministry spokesman said.

Papandreou, who in April used a helicopter to fly to the Greek island of Kastelorizo, 350 miles east of Athens, where he made the request that ushered in a 110 billion-euro bailout, relies mainly on the air-force fleet, according to his office.

Virgin Rental

Ireland, which won approval for an 85 billion-euro emergency aid package on Nov. 28, last year grounded a Hawker Beechcraft Corp. Super King Air 200 turboprop after 28 years of service and won’t replace a Gulfstream IV model once its lifetime expires, the government said in its latest budget. That leaves behind a smaller Bombardier Learjet for “essential government business.”

U.K. Prime Minister Cameron travels on a mixture of charter and scheduled flights. He rented an Airbus A340 from Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd. in November for a visit to China and a G-20 summit, and on his first trip to Washington as premier in July flew business class with British Airways Plc.

Former PM Tony Blair’s plans to buy jets for ministers and the royal family were dropped by successor Gordon Brown in 2008, with the administration citing the rising cost of jet ownership.

Cheaper Option

“From an economic point of view, chartering or flying on a regular service is certainly cheaper,” said Martin Otzik, a professor at Berlin’s Technical University who specializes in aviation. “But besides being a status symbol, having your own plane means you don’t have to wait for scheduled flights, you can get to remote places directly and you have time and space to get real work done.”

French President Nicolas Sarkozy received an Airbus A330 in October, bought second-hand from Caribbean carrier Air Caraibes and refurbished at a cost of 176 million euros, in which he flew to the G-20 in Seoul. Two A319s are to be sold to make way for the plane. Sarkozy also has access to two Dassault Aviation SA Falcon 7X business jets, as well as older Falcon models, which can otherwise be used in military operations, a spokesman said.

The U.S. presidential fleet consists of two customized Boeing 747 planes, the first of which was delivered in 1990, according to the White House website. The aircraft feature an “extensive” presidential suite, a permanent doctor and two food preparation galleys that can feed 100 people.

A bidding process to replace the 747s was begun in January last year, with the request for information specifying modified versions of three new-build wide-body airliners for delivery over four years beginning in fiscal 2017.

The Pentagon canceled Lockheed Martin Corp.’s VH-71 presidential helicopter program in 2009 because costs had increased to $13 billion. Lockheed is teamed up with United Technologies Corp.’s Sikorsky unit for the new competition, with Boeing Co. partnering Finmeccanica SpA’s AgustaWestland unit.