Analysis: Israel mulls 'Air Force One' jet for the premier

Analysis Israel mulls

When the prime minister or president take an official overseas trip they travel in a chartered aircraft without any state symbols and end up paying for what many believe are overpriced tickets. This has led a number of Israeli politicians and pundits to call for an Israeli version of the United States president's Air Force One, a private jet that would allow the country's leaders to fly around the world with pride and without the current wrangling over ticket prices and airplane charters. After recent reports of outlandishly expensive charter tickets for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's trips abroad, the Prime Minister's Office and the Finance Ministry are now mulling over the feasibility of purchasing a new or used passenger jet to be used exclusively for official state visits. While the jet's purpose would be much akin to the US president's Air Force One, it would certainly not be a Boeing Jumbo 747. Netanyahu's September visit to the United States cost a whopping $1.4 million when the government chartered a flight from El Al Israel Airways. "On Netanyahu's current visit to Washington, the Prime Minister's Office got into a bartering game between El Al and Arkia and ended up spending $450,000 by choosing Arkia," aviation expert Arie Egozi told The Media Line. "El Al was jacking up the price and they were shafting the government," said Egozi, an aviation reporter for Yediot Aharonot. "They got tired of that. The reasonable solution is that the government should go ahead and purchase a jet for the prime minister." "It would not only be a sign of self-respect for the government's leaders to have an official plane, it would be safer too, since it could be outfitted with special safety measures that are barred in regular passenger jets." Arkia's spokeswoman Rona Davis said the deal the company offered the prime minister was saving the taxpayer a lot of money. "The prime minister was provided with a plane with 18 business class seats and two first class seats that convert into a flat bed," Davis told The Media Line. "All of the business class seats have private TVs with 30 different movies, video games and music. There were more flight attendants than usual, free alcohol the entire time and the entire flight was given a higher level of catering, with the prime minister eating on ceramic plates." "All this was provided at a savings to taxpayers of around $1m. by choosing Arkia over El Al," Davis said. "The only difference was a 40-minute stop on the way to refuel the plane." It wasn't always like this. Until about a decade ago, prime ministers on official overseas trips could order the Israel Air Force to make one of its Boeing 707 jets available. The current small fleet of these "vintage" aircraft, produced in the early 1970s, are used mainly as cargo planes or refueling platforms for fighter jets. In the past, a special pallet with passenger seats would be inserted into the plane and the prime minister and his entourage would be served by IAF flight technicians instead of stewards. The fare was sparse, and served without fanfare. The aircraft's range was limited, however, which required refueling stops any time major trips were made to countries such as the United States or China. This all came to a halt in 1998 when the 707 carrying the prime minister, in this case Netanyahu during his first term, suffered a shattered cockpit window over Italy and had to perform an emergency landing. Since then, the prime minister has chartered his official flights abroad. There have been some cases in which the prime minister would take a clandestine flight, ordering the IAF to provide one of its Gulfstream 550 surveillance jets. However, such practices have been heavily criticized, as the use of a surveillance plane meant halting the intelligence-gathering activities of the jet while in the service of the prime minister. Aviation experts said Israel would not have to spend $40m. to $50m. for a new jet, but could snap up a used one and refurbish it for about $30m. "In this time of budgetary constraint it would look like a needless extravagance," said one aviation official aware of the feasibility study taking place. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official said that despite the spendthrift appearance of buying a new jet, it was actually a very reasonable option. "The prime minister and president take a lot of trips abroad," the official said. "It would pay for itself very quickly." The Prime Minister's Office and the Finance Ministry said they were looking into the matter and that no decision had been made. Egozi said that had it not been for a public debate about the matter there would have been an official state jet a long time ago. "It's just like when they wanted to build a new prime minister's office," Egozi said. "The minute the public starts to weigh in, all sense of reasonable decision making gets thrown out of the window."