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Zuma flies "Air Ichikowitz"

President Jacob Zuma was flown to the United States this week on a revamped luxury jet, which costs several million Rand to hire and is owned by a prominent ANC backer. Eyewitness News reports defence industrialist and oil broker Ivor Ichikowitz owns the Boeing 727 which was leased for Zuma while his regular Boeing Business Jet undergoes a three-month long service in Basel.

The jet reportedly has two onboard galleys, a queen size bed and gold toilet fittings. It costs an estimated US$14 000 an hour to lease. The jet belongs to Ichikowitz but was rented through a charter company as part of a government tender. Ichikowitz said no discount was given to the president. “This is not a transaction I am directly involved in. My aircraft is on sub-lease,” he said.

In December 2008, Ichikowitz provided the same jet to Zuma for free to travel to Lebanon and Kazakhstan for what the Mail & Guardian newspaper understood were African National Congress (ANC) fundraising and business meetings.

The Ministry of Defence defended the lease of private jets while the president’s regular plane undergoes a major service. MoD Head of Media Services Ndivhuwo Mabaya earlier this month said it was standard practice to hire private jets. He added that they do not hire those planes every day. “We hire them when the other ones are not working,” he said. Zuma will be using the chartered Boeing 727 for the next three months as his official plane is being serviced.

The South African Air Force (SAAF) has paid about R90 million to Execujet Maintenance (Pty) Ltd since 2005 to date to provide “product support services” to the presidential Boeing Business Jet (BBJ). The latest extension of a R33.2 million contract awarded in July 2005 was for R31.705 million in July.

The BBJ, a modified Boeing 737-700 was acquired in the 1990s under Project Jarmen I at a cost of US37.5 million for the aircraft and US$13.5 million for the fittings, translating to about R500 million at the time, plus R82 million in value added tax, according to an INet-Bridge report, Presidential Jet costs detailed, on October 18, 2002. The aircraft made its first flight in 1998 and was delivered to the SAAF on June 26, 2001, replacing the Dassault Falcon 900 used as presidential transport up to that time. It was named Inkwazi (Fish Eagle) and is registered as ZS-RSA.

The Mail & Guardian reported earlier in April that Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Lindiwe Sisulu in a confidential memorandum argued for two Boeing 767 VIP transports for the dedicated use of President Jacob Zuma, two Boeing 737s for his deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, and two smaller Challenger or Bombardier Global Express XRS jets for "former presidents and ministers".

“One aircraft for intercontinental presidential travel is woefully inadequate," Sisulu argued in the memo. "In the event that the BBJ [Boeing Business Jet] is unserviceable or in servicing, there is not another kind of aircraft that is able to fulfil presidential air transport requirements." Motlanthe is currently flown in the Falcon 900, which also provides back-up services to Zuma. This 19-year-old aircraft can fly only 2500 nautical miles before refuelling, less than half the distance to London, the memo points out. Attached to the memo is a letter from aviation services firm Execujet, arguing that it would be cheaper to buy new aircraft than to continue operating those more than 10 years old.

Secretary for Defence Mpumi Mpofu said the price of the lease had to be offset against the ever-increasing cost of maintaining the ever-more-elderly VIP-transport fleet as well as the cost of leasing when the BBJ, Falcon 900, two Falcon 50s and assorted smaller aircraft were either unavailable or unsuitable. She described the costs as increasingly “untenable.”
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