Kim Jong-un has arrived in Singapore for his historic summit with Donald Trump. The North Korean leader’s private Ilyushin Il-62M, operated by state airline Air Koryo, travelled from Pyongyang to Singapore on Sunday, aviation tracking website FlightRadar24 reports. But Kim probably wasn’t on board. Because of safety concerns he is thought to have travelled on an Air China 747 – the Ilyushin was merely a decoy.
What do we know about Kim’s private jet?
The Ilyushin Il-62M, with the registration P-885 and serial number 3933913, landed in Singapore at 06.23am on Sunday morning. The jet was used for Kim Jong-un’s last foreign trip, a May visit to the Chinese port of Dalian, and is one of eight planes in Air Koryo’s fleet.
It’s a venerable Soviet-era aircraft – 39 years old to be precise, while Moscow-based Ilyushin hasn’t produced the model since 1995. Former users of the Il-62 include Aeroflot, KLM, Air India, Cubana and Air France, but all have long since retired it from their fleets.
In fact, there are few older aircraft still in service anywhere on Earth. Research by Telegraph Travel pinpointed an Airfast Indonesia Boeing 737-200, with the registration PK-OCG, as perhaps the most elderly – it was built in 1970, nine years earlier than Kim’s IL-62.
East German airline Interflug also flew the Il-62. Visitors to Flugplatz Stölln/Rhinow, to the west of Berlin, can see an Interflug Il-62 that was converted into a museum in 1989 to commemorate the aviator Otto Lilienthal. It is nicknamed “Lady Agnes”, after Lilienthal’s wife.
The model has a range of around 10,000km (6,213 miles), room for around 180 passengers (Kim’s will have been modified, of course), and a wingspan of 43.2 metres.
Air Koryo itself is famous for being consistently ranked – by aviation ratings website Skytrax – as the “worst” airline in the world. It is the only one given just a single star (out of five), with its ageing Soviet-era fleet, faded interiors, and lingering concerns about safety standards to blame.
Economic sanctions have hit Air Koryo’s route map hard. Founded in 1950, it has previously flown to Prague, Berlin, Moscow, Sofia, Belgrade, Kuala Lumpur and Kuwait City. Now just a handful of international routes (to Vladivostok, Shenyang and Beijing) remain.
Previous passengers have described “perfunctory” emergency procedures, fizzy drinks that are “difficult to identify” and “uncomfortably loud” engine noise, while its oldest aircraft, which are banned from flying international routes, feature cockpits without digital screens and seats that fold forward. Furthermore, the in-flight entertainment usually consists of patriotic odes to the leader and indecipherable North Korean cartoons.
So is Trump’s private jet any better?
It’s a definite step up. Better known as Air Force One, Trump’s presidential plane is a heavily modified Boeing 747-200B kitted out with a secure communications centre, a medical suite, and separate cabin for travelling journalists. It also has a gym, offices and an en-suite bedroom. The interiors were designed by Ronald Reagan’s wife Nancy, in a south-western style.
There are actually two identical “Air Force One” planes with the military designation VC-25A (and the registrations 82-800 and 92-900). If an airport is not capable of handling the 747, the president uses a smaller Boeing C-32.
Like Kim’s Il-62, these are no spring chickens. Both were delivered to the US Air Force in 1990.
Why are their planes so old?
You might assume world leaders like Kim and Trump would prefer flying in a modern jet. But older planes, serviced properly, are no less safe than new ones.
Patrick Smith, a US pilot and author of Cockpit Confidential, explains: “Commercial aircraft are built to last more or less indefinitely, which is one of the reasons why they’re so expensive. It’s common for a jet to remain in service for 25 years or more.” Smith also claims that as planes get older they come under ever greater scrutiny. “Inspection criteria grow increasingly strict,” he says.
What about the private jets of UK leaders?
The Queen boasts not just an aircraft, but a whole fleet. Her Majesty uses the 32nd squadron of the Royal Air Force for her overseas – and some domestic – trips, which includes two AW109 helicopters, six BAE-125s as well as four larger BAE-146s. The Royal household also has its own helicopter, a Sikorsky S-76 Spirit, while it sometimes leases Boeing 747s or 777s from British Airways or Virgin Atlantic for trips.
The UK Prime Minister also uses an aircraft purchased by the 32nd squadron, in the shape of an Airbus A330. The plane, which Theresa May uses for official engagements, was modified at a cost of £15 million, with a small VIP zone near the front of the cabin and economy-style seats at the back for travelling journalists. There are 58 premium-style seats for accompanying ministers and staff. It has also been modified so it can refuel in the air. Nifty. It is far newer than Trump or Kim’s jets – the Royal Air Force has 10 active A330s, the oldest of which was delivered in 2012.
And how about other global powers?
Vladimir Putin’s flagship aircraft is a Russian-made wide-bodied, long-haul airliner, the IL-96-300PU, complete with its own radar-jamming technology. There are three identical aircraft so people don’t know which one Putin is actually in. In addition to some technical modifications, including a telecommunications command centre, parts of the cabin have been lavishly decorated with tapestries and gold leaf. There is also a gym and office.
It was delivered in 2013 and the Russian Government has another Il-96 on order.
Xi Jinping, the leader of the People’s Republic of China, does not have his own aircraft but instead uses two Boeing 747-400s that belong to Air China and are regularly used for normal scheduled flights. When Jinping is set to fly one, the aircraft is carefully examined by the state’s security service and cabin seats are removed to make way for a living room, bedroom and office.
Named after the eponymous post-war German statesman, the Konrad Adenauer has since 2011 been a former Lufthansa Airbus A340 re-configured into a VIP space with bedrooms and additional safety technology. Angela Merkel also has a number of other planes at her disposal, including two Airbus A319s and a Bombardier Global 5000. All are equipped with anti-missile defence technology. A Eurocopter AS532 is used for domestic trips.
Formerly used by Francois Hollande, and now by Emmanuel Macron, the French presidential aircraft – an Airbus A330-200 – has a bedroom, dressing room, kitchen, office and soundproof negotiation room. It also has space for travelling journalists. Nicolas Sarkozy previously used an Airbus A319 before one of its engines failed just before take-off. After that the A319 was sold to make way for the A330. The presidential fleet also includes two Dassault Falcon 7Xs.
One of the wealthiest people on the planet, the Emir of Qatar has a host of aircraft at his disposal, including two Airbus A320s, two A330s and two Boeing 747-8s, required to transport his entourage of as many as 1,000 people on his official engagements. He once arrived in Japan to meet the prime minister with 10 jets. A state-owned VIP airline, Qatar Amiri Flight, is used to fly his family members, head of the government, and high level officials, and counts 14 aircraft in its fleet.