LAST OCTOBER, a special aircraft carrying Defence Minister A. K. Antony and his entourage landed at Tajikistan's Dushanbe airport. When the sleek Embraer 135 Legacy executive jet was rolling on the taxiway, Tajikistan's defence minister Khayrulloev Sherali Khayrulleovich unexpectedly made his way to the tarmac.
As Antony stepped out of his jet, the Tajik leader was waiting for him with honey and bread. Learning that the Indian leader's jet would be stopping for a re- fuelling halt on its way to Moscow, the Tajik minister decided to have a quick meeting. But the brief stopover turned out to be a significant diplomatic event in view of India's close military ties with Tajikistan.
The defence minister had the flexibility to meet a close ally without prior preparation because of the aircraft he was travelling in. He belongs to the elite club of cabinet ministers who now have the privilege of flying in aircraft assigned to them -- a privilege that in the public eye seems to belong only to the triumvirate of the President, Vice President and Prime Minister.
In the manner of corporate chieftains, these ministers fly around the world -- subject of course to the Prime Minister's permission -- in executive jets that come loaded with gizmos to protect them and help them stay in touch with the world while on long- distance assignments.
When the President, Prime Minister or a senior cabinet minister prepares to take off on work, a Boeing Business Jet ( BBJ) or an Embraer 135 is lined up at the Palam Technical Area in New Delhi to transport them to their destinations. Soon there will be Augusta Westland's AW 101 helicopters also on call for short- haul travel.
But these elite flying machines come at a price. More than ` 5,500 crore have gone into buying these assets to make the country's top leadership more efficient and better protected when travelling abroad, and enable them also to reflect the growing status of the country in the international arena.
THE government acquired three Boeing Business Jets ( BBJs) in 2008 exclusively for the use of the President, Vice President and the Prime Minister.
The aircraft is one of the most advanced models to come out of the Boeing stable. It is based on the new- generation 737- 700 in terms of its airframe and packs in the features of a 737- 800. Each aircraft comes with ' self- protection suite' that defends it from any attack from the ground or air. The security features alone costs ` 200 crore per aircraft. The concept of a fully secured flying office is derived from Air Force One, the US President's personal bird.
When the Prime Minister goes on his foreign tours, the favoured aircraft is the earmarked Boeing 747- 437 Jumbo from Air India's fleet. A week before the PM's departure, VIP- I is handed over to the Special Protection Group to be ' sanitised' and a second Boeing 747- 437 Jumbo is kept on standby.
It's the Ministry of External Affairs ( MEA) that is responsible for requisitioning the aircraft, which gets an Air India call sign only after the President or the PM boards it.
For External Affairs Minister S. M. Krishna, the aircraft of choice varies according to the purpose of his foreign tour. For his trips to China, Gulf nations and India's neighbours, Krishna flew in an Embraer 135, after getting the PM's green signal, but for his recent trip to Pakistan, where he was accompanied by 70 journalists and television cameramen, the MEA had to charter an Airbus from Air India.
On Krishna's flights, Saravanaa Bhavan idlis , dosas and upma top up the Taj Sats menu. The simplicity of the food on board reflects Krishna's eating habits. On the PM's flight, however, the best of champagne and caviar are served to keep the officials and journalists on board in high spirits, although Manmohan Singh is a teetotaller and prefers to spend his time on board catching up on his reading.
In contrast, his predecessor, Atal Bihar Vajpayee, used to dig golden fried prawns and watch Bollywood films in the skies, while his foster son- in- law, Ranjan Bhattacharya, would sharpen his golfing skills with journos on the putting green that was laid out in the upper deck of VIP- I. Today, the upper deck houses only the Prime Minister's office, sitting room and bedroom. The rest of the wide- bodied aircraft is reconfigured in a way that the first and business classes are for officials; the rear cabin has business class seats added for journalists and the economy class is kept for the support staff and security personnel.
The presidential flights of course are more popular because the trips are longer and the pace more relaxed. And the cherry on the icing is the tradition of the President hosting a reception to thank the accompanying crew and the delegation after returning home. The elite aircraft come with special entitlements not only for the travelling dignitaries, but also for those who get to share the privilege.
The cherry on the icing is the good old tradition of the President hosting a reception for the accompanying crew and delegation after returning from a trip
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