Photo/IllutrationThe government’s official jets parked at Los Angeles International Airport on Dec. 3, 2018 (Takeshi Iwashita)

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  • Photo/Illustraion

Shrouded in mystery and special in their own way, the two Boeing 747-400 jumbo jets that fly Japan’s prime minister and the emperor around the world are a proud national symbol.

However, although Self-Defense Forces personnel serve as the cabin attendants, flying aboard is not much different than a regular international commercial flight.

On one day, the in-flight entertainment even was a source of irony, showing on the big screen a movie about a U.S. newspaper that exposed a decades-long governmental cover-up.

Meal service is similar to the fare offered aboard a commercial international flight, and alcoholic beverages can be ordered.

Nicknamed “the prime minister’s flying office,” the government’s official jet sports red lines on both sides of the white fuselage and the logo of “Nihonkoku Japan” (country of Japan) with a red sun insignia painted on the tail.

The current Boeing 747-400 government planes will be retired from service at the end of March after having flown 318 times carrying VIPs since they went into service in 1993.

They will be replaced by the new Boeing 777-300ER.

The government’s airplane is a common sight in the news when the emperor and prime ministers travel overseas as they wave to the media’s cameras before climbing on board.

NICKNAMED THE ‘JUMBO’

When prime ministers travel overseas, accompanying reporters also board the plane at the VIP apron at Haneda Airport. The massive appearance of the double-decker lives up to its jumbo designation. The two identical planes fly together, with one serving as a backup to the other in the event the primary transport encounters difficulties while on the journey.

There are two entrances to the plane, one in the front and the other in the back. Reporters and accompanying government personnel board the plane from the back. They are greeted by SDF members who serve as cabin attendants dressed in the navy-blue uniform of the Air Self-Defense Force with a rank insignia. They are members of the Special Airlift Group specializing in the operation of the government planes.

All staff members, including pilots, maintenance crew and dispatchers, belong to the division. In addition to serving passengers, cabin attendants are also “airlift personnel” tasked with loading and unloading bags and cargo.

The division is a sought-after assignment among ASDF personnel, comprising the best and brightest selected from applicants with a rank of airman first class or higher, according to officials. A team of 15 to 25 members is formed for each aircraft per flight.

CLOSER LOOK AT INSIDE OF PLANE

The rearmost section is a regular passenger area (89 seats) for reporters and accompanying government personnel. The seats are slightly larger than those of regular commercial planes, and the area has a configuration of two seats on each window side and four seats in the middle. Three large chairs facing rearward are placed on the podium in front of the seats. Microphones are also installed for news conferences.

Moving farther to the front, there is a section (39 seats) for senior officials and other personnel accompanying the mission, which is equivalent to business class seating. Going even farther, there is a secretarial area with 11 seats spaced out and away from each other because secretaries need to work while traveling. There is a table in the meeting room set aside by a door, while fax machines and photocopiers are set up in the workroom. Special Airlift Group members who have no tasks during the flight take up seats on the upper level, which is characteristic of the layout of a jumbo jet.

Going even farther to the front on the lower level, there is supposedly a VIP room. But the Defense Ministry doesn't disclose the details, citing crisis management. However, the VIP room was opened to the media in November 1991 before the aircraft were placed into service.

The Asahi Shimbun reported at the time: “In the VIP room in the front-most section on the lower level, there are the prime minister’s office, a sofa bed, a ladies’ room for his wife.”

The interior layout will stay basically the same in the new aircraft, which will replace the old ones in April, the officials said.

The base color of the interior is beige, which provides a relaxed ambience. A pair of deep blue slippers in a bag is tucked in the pocket of the seat in front. The towel-cloth slippers are embroidered with the JASDF logo on the top. The logo is also stitched in gold thread on the blue rental blanket, which is stiff and heavy but is excellent for staying warm.

Both items are exclusively developed for the government planes. The same goes for the cabin safety video shown on the large monitor in the front of the cabin before takeoff. An ASDF member shows how to buckle the seat belts and evacuate the aircraft in the event of an emergency.

An instructional pamphlet that lists in-flight meals, beverages, movies, music and other information is placed on each seat. Passengers also find a “boarding pass,” which is a business card-sized piece of paper printed with the seat number and the name of the passenger.

Featured on both items is a photo of the government aircraft taken by SDF members. Their “love” for their workplace is apparent in these elaborately framed photos, which give a full view of the plane in one and a close-up of the jet in another.

JAL PROVIDES TRAINING, MEALS

Because the government jets are passenger carriers different from transport and combat aircraft, the Defense Ministry outsources maintenance work for some of the parts that require special handling and cabin attendant training to Japan Airlines Co. The airliner also commissions an affiliate to offer movies, music and other in-flight entertainment offerings, in addition to meals and drinks. ANA Holdings Inc. will take over the role for the new planes.

Passengers are offered two meal choices: Japanese or Western; meat or fish; and meat or chicken. A cup noodle that is offered by JAL on international flights is also provided as a snack.

The drinks include alcoholic beverages. Passengers can choose beers from Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo and Suntory. Red and white wines are also served, with different brands offered on almost every flight.

Sake and shochu regularly offered in recent years include Tomino Hozan “imo-jochu” (distilled from sweet potato), Naka-Naka “mugi-shochu” (distilled from wheat) and Hakurakusei premium sake.

A Lipovitan D energy drink is also included in the menu at the request of security officers, whose daily duties can be hectic in protecting the prime minister, according to the officials.

No seat-back viewing screens are installed in the current government jets, so movies are shown the old-fashioned way--on a large screen in the front of the cabin. A wide variety of movies are offered, including anime films.

When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Russia in May 2018, “The Post” was played as in-flight entertainment. At the time, Abe was being questioned in the Diet concerning political scandals in which official documents involving two school operators linked to the prime minister--Kake Educational Institution and Moritomo Gakuen--were falsified. The film details the efforts of The Washington Post to publish government documents classified as top secret by the U.S. Department of Defense showing that the administration gave factually inaccurate explanations to the public.

“We had no part in selecting it ('The Post') because we leave the selection of in-flight movies to the (JAL) affiliate,” an ASDF official said.

MEDIA CHARGED FOR FLIGHT

Reporters flying aboard the government jet are charged fares in the name of “government plane usage fees.” Each reporter was billed 474,000 yen ($4,250) for the flight when the prime minister visited Moscow and Davos, Switzerland, in January. According to the Defense Ministry, it charges a fare equivalent to economy class fares of commercial airlines after a certain discount rate is applied.

The current planes flew 318 times in the past 27 years, making stops at 269 locations in 100 countries. They have been used not only to transport the emperor or prime ministers but also to dispatch members of the SDF and the Japan Disaster Relief Team.

‘HITCHHIKING DIPLOMACY’

In 2002, former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder became the first foreign leader to fly in the government jet to watch the German national soccer team play in the finals of the FIFA World Cup, which was co-hosted by Japan and South Korea. He hitched a ride after the Group of Eight summit in Canada to watch the game in Yokohama.

Then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi had a summit meeting with Schroeder in the plane, with the flight referred to as “hitchhiking diplomacy.”

Koizumi let Schroeder use his room while flight announcements were also made in German, the officials said.

In 2004, family members of Japanese nationals abducted to North Korea returned home on the government plane. The aircraft have been used to transport Japanese citizens from overseas areas in emergencies, bringing home victims of the 2013 hostage crisis in Algeria and the bodies of victims and their bereaved families of the 2016 hostage-taking attack in Dhaka.

FOREIGN MINISTER FLIES COMMERCIAL

The U.S. Air Force One is famed among government jets, but the United States, China and Russia also have aircraft dedicated to their foreign ministers. In Japan, the government jets are exclusively used to carry prime ministers and imperial family members when they visit overseas nations. According to the Foreign Ministry, the government planes have almost never been used for the foreign minister’s solo trips abroad.

In 2017, Foreign Minister Taro Kono said he lagged behind in the number of countries he visited compared to his counterparts, arguing that taking commercial flights won't allow him the flexibility to plan his overseas trips. With a small plane like a business jet in mind, he added that he would seek ways to introduce a government plane exclusive to the foreign minister.

However, the ministry decided not to include funds for a plane in its budget request. The plan came under fire as it involved the purchase of an expensive jet ahead of the scheduled increase in the consumption tax rate. In addition, the introduction of an exclusive jet could cost as much as 10 billion yen for the purchase and to secure a hangar, the labor costs for pilots and other expenses, not to mention annual maintenance and operation costs.

FINAL FLIGHT OF CURRENT FLEET

The government plane landed on Haneda Airport shortly after 6 p.m. on Jan. 24 after completing the flight from Davos to return Abe and his entourage back to Japan. With the aircraft not scheduled for any more missions until the end of March, the return trip from Switzerland will likely be the final flight of the current government aircraft.

According to the officials, the two current jets cost 35.9 billion yen, while the two new planes will run about 37 billion yen each. With the number of engines reduced to two from the current aircraft’s complement of four, the new jet is about 15 tons lighter and more fuel efficient. The flight performance will be significantly enhanced, giving the aircraft an additional cruising range of about 1,400 kilometers and other improvements, the officials said.