French president takes maiden flight on "Air Sarko"

PARIS Thu Nov 11, 2010 9:46am EST

PARIS (Reuters Life!) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy took his maiden flight on a newly purchased presidential airplane on Thursday, traveling to the Group of 20 summit in Seoul aboard the swankily outfitted Airbus A330.

Bought second-hand from Caribbean Airlines, "Air Sarko" as the plane has been dubbed by French media is a converted passenger plane equipped with missile-aversion technology, a secure communications unit and a bedroom with adjoining shower.

The plane's price tag of 84 million euros ($138 million) was about half its commercial value, but remodeling it to the president's requirements brought the total up to 176 million, prompting charges of profligacy from the opposition.

Defense Minister Herve Morin defended the additional costs over the summer, saying it was "pure common sense" to equip the presidential plane with a bed and shower and denying rumors it was also to have a sitting bathtub.

To be used for all of the president's official journeys, the A330 replaces two smaller Airbus A319 planes previously used for the same purpose. It is larger with a longer range of 12,000 km (7,000 miles) versus 7,000 km for the other planes.

The plane's purchase brings Sarkozy into a league with U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao, both of whom travel in converted Boeing 747s.

(Reporting by Nick Vinocur)

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