North Korean leader Kim Jong-un hitched a ride on an Air China plane last Sunday from Pyongyang to Singapore for his summit with US President Donald Trump.
His father and grandfather were known for their fear of flying but Kim Jong-un had no apparent concern about his 4,700km journey to the Southeast Asian city-state, which may have been the longest flight he’s made since taking office in 2011.
It appears that Beijing didn’t mind dispatching one of its state aircraft and footing the outlay to transport Kim to a meeting that could yield significant benefits for the region, particularly if it leads to peace and the US eventually leaving the Korean peninsula.
The same plane reportedly flew Kim back home on Tuesday.
Beijing’s offer to fly Kim may not be a one-off affair, now that Trump has extended an invite to Kim to visit the White House in the future. North Korea has no modern airliner fit for the longer journey to the US capital.
Chinese papers have also been highlighting Beijing’s logistical support that was integral to the groundbreaking détente between North Korea and the US. Yet, the Chinese plane is actually one made in the US.
Other than Kim, the Boeing 747-400 jumbo jet has also carried past and present Chinese presidents from Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping, as well as premiers Zhu Rongji, Wen Jiabao and Li Keqiang for overseas state visits, and is thus dubbed China’s “Air Force One”.
Built in 1995 at Boeing’s Everett plant near Seattle and registered as B-2447, the airliner is also used for commercial flights among key hubs such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hong Kong. So, the rank and file also have a chance of traveling on the plane.
Xinhua claimed in 2013 that China had no aircraft exclusive for state leaders – “for the purpose of frugality,” the news agency quoted Lu Peixin, former chief of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Protocol Department, as saying.
A Boeing 747 sitting idle can still cost US$40,000 per day for maintenance and jets that do not fly often may become prone to mechanical glitches.
But don’t expect plush cabins or state-of-the-art equipment one may associate with air transport for state leaders. Chinese aviation buffs who have seen it noted on aviation forums that the plane looked quaint, with a no-frills economy class and layouts not found on newer jets.
Members of Kim’s entourage may not have the luxury of individual screens in front their seats or personal entertainment systems with piped-in music or movies on demand now common on modern planes, as there are only a few TV screens above aisles on the plane.
While one may have to squeeze himself into seats in the “cattle class” with cramped legroom, first and business class seats for Kim and members of his coterie could not be flattened to form beds either.
But there are ashtrays on armrests of most seats, though it’s not clear if the Air China crew would intervene should Kim, a noted smoker, resort to puffing on a cigarette.
But, the 23-year-old plane is in the sunset of its service life and the Chinese flag carrier is phasing out its old jets. Chinese leaders are set to switch to younger Boeing 747s, like B-2472 built in 2000s, to travel in more comfort and style.
Air China has also delisted a brand-new Boeing 747-8i (B-2479) from its commercial fleet and the military and secret service are said to have spent years reconfiguring it as China’s first state plane for the exclusive use of Xi and future leaders.