I have very strong opinions about the liveries of state aircraft. It’s kind of my thing. So when the Royal Air Force unveiled its newly repainted Airbus A330MRTT Voyager head of state transport this week, I had to give it a closer look. I did, and I’m not particularly impressed.
For some time, this aircraft, nicknamed ‘Vespina’ according to Business Insider, wore the same drab gray paint as the rest of the A330MRTT fleet that the Royal Air Force typically uses in an airborne refueling role. This plane once had that job as well, but in 2016 it was refitted to serve as a VIP transport with room for a sizable army of aides and press as well. Though that refit has meant that the plane will largely only serve in its new role, it does remain capable of serving as a tanker as well with minor changes.
Back when the plane was refitted, the ten-million-pound cost of the project of dedicating a specific aircraft to VIP transport duties was seen as an extravagance. Still, the government did claim that having an aircraft on standby could reduce costs to the tune of £775,000 compared to regular charters of commercial planes and that its availability for Air Force use made it further money-saver. When factoring in the number of people who might use the plane, including the Prime Minister, senior cabinet officials, and the Royal Family, I suppose that may be the case.
But while the plane’s plainer paint might have been alright for Prime Minister Cameron, Prime Minister Theresa May, and Her Majesty The Queen, new Prime Minister Boris Johnson wasn’t enamored when he took office not long ago. The paint scheme and the fact that the plane had to serve the Air Force as well seemed to bother him most:
“What I will say about the Voyager, I think it’s great, but it seems to be very difficult to get hold of. It never seems to be available. I don’t know who uses it, but it never seems to be available. And also, why does it have to be grey?”
Now, Boris has got his wish. At a price of more than a million dollars, the plane has been repainted in a red, white, and blue livery with a Union Jack design on the tail and gold ‘UNITED KINGDOM’ lettering down the side of the fuselage. The Guardian reports that the change in livery is intended to reframe the image as a further symbol of Britain’s independent diplomatic voice when the prime minister or other leadership figures travel abroad for summits and meetings, especially as the country distances itself from the rest of Europe after Brexit.
Ironically, though, broadly speaking, the type of paint scheme applied to the plane, with a white body festooned with colored detailing and a brightly colored tail, is called “Eurowhite” in the business. You might be familiar with it from spotting planes in the fleets of airlines like Air France, Lufthansa, Swissair, Iberia, and others from the continent.
I tend to agree with planespotters who deride the Eurowhite style as plain and unimaginative in commercial use, but I think the impact is even greater when the plane is designed to be a symbol of diplomatic power. As I’ve discussed before concerning America’s Air Force One, the power of a livery comes from harnessing the imagery behind the paint, not just its raw visual impact. Without the entirety of American Modernism as both an aesthetic and ideology behind the light blue of Raymond Loewy’s designs for the American plane, it couldn’t have become the legendary symbol of American diplomacy it is today.
The fact that the British government is introducing this plane at a particularly precarious moment for Britain’s image abroad as the country leaves the European Union suggests that the effort to cultivate a new diplomatic image is more of a distraction from its actual diplomatic objectives. Had that process been more successful and streamlined, perhaps a new plane with a new image could have made more sense, regardless of what it looked like.
But when the new plane looks a lot like any other jet sitting on the apron of a European airport, it’s hard to see it as a durable symbol of a Britain independent from its neighbors on the continent. It just looks like more of the same.
Aside from the challenges the new aesthetic might create for diplomats trying to choreograph international visits, critics have pointed out several other issues with the plane. The first line of attack comes from within the Royal Air Force. The Guardian has spoken with several Air Force pilots and officials who say that the new livery renders the plane useless for its secondary role as an air-to-air tanker.
When the plane was painted identically to the rest of the tanker fleet, it was easy to bring it back into service refueling fighter jets, transports, and other combat aircraft. In particular, the planes are often used to refuel RAF Typhoon fighters tracking and shadowing Russian planes that fly routes close to British airspace. This plane, with seats fitted, could also be used as a troop transport. In a bright white and immediately recognizable paint scheme, the Voyager might as well have a target painted on it. When asked about the issue, one pilot told the Guardian that “No one wants to go to war in a jet painted like a brightly coloured lollipop.”
But there’s also another issue with the plane: timing. The Royal Air Force unveiled the plane and disclosed the high cost of its repainting as the United Kingdom continues to contend with one of the most serious outbreaks of covid-19 in the world, pushing the country’s healthcare system and economy to the brink. One opinion writer in the Huffington Post stacked up all of the austerity measures the government has taken as the pandemic continues to strain the British economy, from limiting free meal services for students in need, to pay cuts for civil servants, against the spending undertaken to repaint the plane. Some of those programs remain unfunded while the new jet is now available for service to fly the prime minister around the world.
When asked about how much the plane had cost, a spokesperson for the Prime Minister’s Office had the gall to say the government had managed to get “value for money for UK taxpayers.” If that was the case, I would have hoped the plane would have at least looked better.