Can we please get the prime minister a proper plane?

If Canada wants to look the part of a G8 country, the prime minister's plane needs to get an upgrade.

Until a few years ago, RCAF 001 still had ashtrays in the armrests and no internet

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau boards a government plane in Ottawa on Oct. 29, 2016. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The irony gods surely would have died had Prime Minister Justin Trudeau missed the CETA signing ceremony last month because of faulty European technology. After almost losing the long-delayed Canada-EU free-trade agreement to last-minute Walloon gum-flapping, Trudeau's European-built Airbus was forced to return to Ottawa shortly after takeoff for Brussels because of a flap fault of its own. Fortunately for all involved, Trudeau's wings weren't clipped and the problem was quickly resolved.

Of course, it would be churlish to blame the Europeans for a piece of equipment that's been in Canadian hands for over 30 years. Yes, our "flying Taj Mahal" — as it was dubbed by then Liberal opposition leader Jean Chrétien — is older than Guns N' Roses' Appetite for Destruction, and over the years it's brought many government staffers to their knees praying for an upgrade. The media too.

How bad is it? Until its most recent upgrade and repainting a few years ago, RCAF 001 had ashtrays in the armrests of its seats: it had ash receptacles, but it didn't have the internet. It barely had a reliable phone or fax machine. Even now, the internet is shoddy and cost-prohibitive.

Trudeau disembarks in Zurich in January ahead of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Currently, only one of the three VIP government Airbuses has a cabin in which the prime minister can work and sleep. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Only one of the three "VIP" government Airbuses has a cabin in which the prime minister can work and sleep. Ditto a shower, which is more like a weak hose leaking water into a cramped stall. How can we expect our prime minister to be ready to rock and roll when he's essentially crashing on a fold-out couch during long trips to Europe or Asia? And that's only if the prime minister has the "good" plane, which is reserved for our head of state, should she or he need it at the same time.

Wasted hours

First-world problems, you say? Maybe. But at some point, you need to look the part of a G8 country. Indeed, the world now moves too fast to be deaf, dumb and blind for long airborne stretches of time.

RCAF 001 got a $50,000 paint job in 2013, going from military grey to red, white and blue. (JetPhotos.net)

An example: In 2011, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was on his way to Perth, Australia, for a Commonwealth meeting. His first event was to be a speech to business leaders about the global economy — you might recall it was in a bit of flux at the time. Greece was in one of its serial meltdowns, a crucial G20 meeting was just about to take place in Cannes and people actually cared what Canada — the darling of the banking crisis and recent G20 chair — had to say.

But instead of being in constant communication with Finance and Bank of Canada officials on the way down, those of us on the plane (I was a press secretary at the time) had to wait for refuelling stops in Honolulu and French Polynesia to receive updates, and then incorporate them into the speech. One last upgrade, then off to the prime minister's potentially market-moving remarks once we reached Perth, more than 30 hours after leaving Ottawa, by which point we all felt like we had been dragged through a hedge backwards. One small, jet-lagged miscue from the prime minister or his staff could have sent markets plunging.

And then there are the many hours wasted in foreign capitals following the completion of government business as journalists are rushed to file on the ground because the plane can't support the transmission of data to newsrooms in Canada. A proper plane would have an edit suite and some sort of broadcasting capability.

Resource pigs

Now, if prime ministerial, staffer and journalist comfort aren't your thing, our VIP planes are also resource pigs. Modern airliners are more fuel-efficient and, while still not good for the environment, are vastly superior to our geriatric jets. They go further faster, with less waste.

Then prime minister Stephen Harper boards a military Airbus A-310 plane in Ottawa on June 11, 2013. The prime minister's plane is overdue for a substantial upgrade, writes Andrew MacDougall. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Given that Trudeau is now spraying stimulus dollars hither and yon, and that he's bitten the bullet and given the National Capital Commission carte blanche to fix 24 Sussex, he should allow the Department of National Defence to canvass options for replacing RCAF 001. If the government is going to give Boeing some fighter-replacement business, they could insist on a Dreamliner as part of the deal. Or if they're insisting on saving Bombardier's bacon, they could at least ask for a few reconfigured C-series jets as part of the deal.

The best part is, it needn't be painful. Indeed, no sane journalist who travels with the prime minister would begrudge an upgrade. Their criticism would be as muted as post-CETA Wallonia. Upgrading our "flying Taj Mahal" — if we can even call it that now — is a price worth paying.

This column is part of CBC's new Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Andrew MacDougall is a Canadian-British national based in London who writes about politics and current affairs. He was previously director of communications for former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.


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