Presidential hopefuls crisscross U.S. in customized chartered jets

 - July 30, 2008, 6:13 AM

Back before the Iowa primary, Senators Barack Obama and John McCain spent
lots of time rolling around that state on campaign busses. But with the clock ticking toward election day and much bigger terrain to cover, both presumptive presidential nominees have long since turned mostly to business jet travel.

During the primaries, Sen. Obama (D-Ill.) chartered a Boeing 757-200ER with a conventional airline seating arrangement. Now his campaign has customized another 757 (N755NA), according to New York-based North American Airlines, the jet’s operator. The interior has being reconfigured with a first-class section for the candidate and his closest advisers, a business-class section for other campaign officials and coach for journalists. A new paint job features Obama’s theme, “Change We Can Believe In,” on the fuselage, and the candidate’s logo on the tail.

Corporate Jets Draw Fire
As for Sen. McCain (R-Ariz.), he frequently chartered aircraft from JetBlue during the primaries. He also used the Cessna Citation Excel available to his wife in her role as chairwoman of her family’s business, Hensley & Company, a major Anheuser-Busch beer distributor.

Sen. McCain’s use of the Excel in the summer of 2007 as his campaign war chest shrank precipitously drew negative attention from the media. Due to an exemption in Federal Election Committee regulations, his campaign could use the corporate airplane like a charter jet while paying only first-class airline rates rather than the significantly higher cost that he would have incurred had the aircraft been on charter. The law specifically exempts aircraft owned by a candidate or his family or by a privately held company they control.

Given Sen. McCain’s longstanding position on campaign finance reform, and the fact that he’d backed legislation last year requiring presidential candidates to pay charter rates–not the less expensive first-class fares–when using such jets, some felt his choice of reimbursement was disingenuous.

Financially rejuvenated, at any rate, the Arizona senator is now using a Boeing 737-400 (N802TJ) operated by Phoenix-based Swift Air. The aircraft, which has the campaign’s “Straight Talk Express” logo emblazoned on its fuselage, also carries the candidate’s motto, “Reform, Prosperity, Peace.”

The jet is configured to be reminiscent of Sen. McCain’s old campaign bus. However, FAA regulations necessitated some differences. During rolling news conferences in the back of the bus, the senator would sit on a horseshoe-shaped couch and chat with reporters. FAA regulations require an airplane’s aisles to be clear, so the couch was out, replaced by a captain’s chair for the senator and a smaller, airworthy couch
for more intimate conversations. There are 10 first-class and 95 additional seats. The middle cabin is reserved for the Secret Service and the aft cabin for journalists.

One problem Sen. McCain encountered during his primary campaign was the difficulty of holding a press conference in an aircraft. Now the business
end of N802TJ is wired for microphones and has specialty lighting and room for
a television camera.