More charter flights likely for British royals

 - July 27, 2009, 10:40 AM

Britain’s Royal Household and Ministry of Defence are evaluating options for providing flights for Queen Elizabeth II and her family beginning April 1 next year, when existing military and private charter arrangements expire. The revival of an earlier plan to purchase a new head-of-state aircraft appears unlikely due to concerns about the continuing recession. However, the Queen will be taking delivery of a new Sikorsky S-76 to replace one that had been operated under a 10-year lease that expired in April.

Queen Elizabeth has become a significant consumer of executive charter services since scrapping plans to buy a new private jet in October 2008. Royal accounts publicly reported on June 29 revealed that Britain’s royal family has been using the services of an undisclosed charter operator under a contract drawn up in anticipation of Royal Air Force plans to withdraw the availability of 32 Squad- ron aircraft on April 1 this year. In fact, while the RAF later agreed to extend the availability of flights in its aging British Aerospace 146 and HS125 jets until March 31 next year, the Queen and other royals have had to make increasing use of charter flights because the military needed to divert the aircraft to service in the Middle East.

The royal accounts for financial year 2008/09 (ending on March 31, 2009) show increased use of private charters over the previous 12 months as RAF 32 Squadron aircraft became less readily available. The amount spent on fixed- wing charters rose by almost 19 percent from £2.2 million ($3.5 million) to £2.6 million ($4.2 million), with the amount of helicopter flying rising more gradually. The Royal Household logged a total of 190 charter hours last year.

Meanwhile, the Queen’s new S-76 will be operated by an undisclosed charter/management firm understood to be the same one that has provided the existing aircraft under a 10-year lease. The existing aircraft logged 501 flight hours last year.

Raising Eyebrows

The royal family’s use of private aircraft has raised some eyebrows at a time of severe belt-tightening by the Queen’s subjects. Adverse press coverage has focused on the £55,269 ($88,430) spent flying Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, from London to the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheikh to attend the World Economic Forum in his capacity as “special representative” to the UK Trade & Investment agency, and on £14,290 ($22,864) of public money spent chartering a jet to fly the Countess of Wessex to an event in Germany. In both cases, direct commercial airline service was available.

In contrast to the furor provoked when top U.S. automobile executives flew in corporate jets to request federal bailout funds, there has been little attempt in Europe to connect private aviation with financial mismanagement and alleged greed.
However, members of the British parliament–themselves accused of excessive spending of public funds–have indicated that they do not feel inclined to support claims by the Royal Household for an additional £4 million ($6.4 million) in budget for the new financial year. This may prompt royal travel managers to negotiate even harder with companies bidding to provide private airlift for the Queen and her offspring beginning next April.