When the VIP Voyager Vespina aircraft was repainted in “national branding” last summer, officials said it would be used promote the UK around the world while carrying senior royals and ministers on diplomatic and trade missions.
But analysis by i of available flight tracking data suggests the aircraft’s only role in promoting the UK since the end of January has been to take part in a flypast over Athens watched by Prince Charles to mark the bicentenary of Greek independence.
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When the Trade Secretary Liz Truss landed in Washington earlier this week for trade talks with the US – potentially the Government’s biggest foreign deal since Brexit – she tweeted a picture of herself in front of another RAF aircraft painted in military grey.
The Voyager’s main use has been to refuel RAF fighter planes patrolling the North Sea, where it has been making sorties every few days and could be seen as recently as Wednesday flying at 16,000ft off the coast of Lincolnshire during a five-hour flight. Earlier this month, it joined other RAF planes on a Nato exercise in Europe.
Andy Netherwood, a former military transport pilot and defence commentator, told i the Voyager has been “rarely used” in its VIP role recently.
He added: “The £900,000 livery means it wouldn’t be usable on operations requiring an inconspicuous paint scheme. Its usefulness as a troop carrier is also reduced as its economy seats were replaced with fewer business class seats in the front two cabins.”
The Government says the coronavirus pandemic has meant the plane’s VIP role has been “greatly reduced”. i was unable to verify whether two flights in January, to Athens in Greece and Gander in Canada were RAF operations.
However, a second jet, a chartered Airbus A321 also emblazoned with a Union flag, has been on frequent visits abroad this year including trips by the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to Singapore, Phnom Penh, Hanoi, Brunei, Jakarta and Tel Aviv.
Boris Johnson has been criticised for using that plane to fly from London to Newquay to meet other world leaders at the G7 summit.
The Scottish National Party (SNP) has criticised the cost of the RAF plane’s repainting as a “Tory red, white and blue vanity project” and a “waste of public money”.
SNP deputy Westminster leader Kirsten Oswald said: “Boris Johnson has been happy to throw taxpayers’ cash at new, unnecessary jets, yachts and Union Jack paint jobs, whilst imposing austerity cuts on the rest of us.”
The Liberal Democrats‘ deputy leader Daisy Cooper said: “Boris Johnson’s ability to waste taxpayer’s money truly knows no bounds.”
She said: “Wasting money on painting planes while refusing to feed hungry children or properly pay hard-working nurses is just another reminder that this failing PM will always put propaganda over people.”
The RAF Voyager was first repurposed for use by the UK Government in 2015 at a cost of £10m and was used to take David Cameron to the Nato summit in Poland the following year.
At the time, ministers defending the expenditure, saying it was cheaper than chartering flights and would save around £775,000 a year, with chartered planes costing an average of £6,700 an hour in the air.
On a trip to South America in 2018, the then Foreign Secretary Mr Johnson said the aircraft was not available to him enough and complained about its dull colour scheme.
“Why does it have to be grey?” he is reported to have said about its RAF camouflage paint scheme.
Last year, it was revealed that the repainting of the aircraft was costing the UK taxpayer £900,000 – a move that was condemned at the time as wasteful by opposition parties.
The Government says the repainting means the plane can “better represent” the UK around the world with national branding similar to many other leaders’ planes.
A Government spokeswoman said: “The VIP Voyager is used by the Prime Minister, senior ministers and members of the Royal Family for long-haul flights. During the global coronavirus pandemic, the number of such flights has been greatly reduced.
“Since its livery was updated, the VIP Voyager continues to provide its primary military function of air-to-air refuelling support operations and training.”