The Federal Government’s two Boeing 737BBJ special-purpose aircraft (SPA) based at Fairbairn Defence Establishment at Canberra Airport will soon be traded in on new models.
The BBJs are operated by the Royal Australian Air Force’s No 34 Squadron and entered service in 2002. Their lease is due to expire in 2024.
The trade-in will complete the refresh of the SPA fleet, after three smaller Dassault Falcon 7X business jets arrived in Canberra in 2019 to replace older Bombardier Challenger 604 aircraft.
The BBJ is a modified Boeing 737-700 airliner which features the longer wing and strengthened undercarriage of the larger 737-800 model, and long-range fuel tanks in the cargo hold.
BBJs can carry up to 30 passengers and a crew of six in a low-density VIP-configured cabin. With their long-range tanks, they can reach destinations such as Hong Kong, Tokyo or Honolulu from Canberra.
Despite logging low hours compared to commercial 737s such as those operated by Qantas or Virgin Australia, the BBJ cabins need to be refurbished and their communications systems upgraded.
A tender was released late last year to dispose of the BBJs. It was revealed in February’s Senate Estimates hearings that the preferred replacement was the newer 737-8 version of the BBJ with its longer fuselage, greater capacity and more fuel-efficient engines.
Defence documents tendered to Estimates revealed the newer 737-8 “represents better value-for-money than retention of the BBJs beyond the lease expiry” and the newer aircraft “meet or exceed all current BBJ capabilities and are the only viable solution to meet the requirements of the medium capacity SPA capability”.
With the 14-passenger Falcon 7X at the light capacity end of the SPA fleet and the BBJ/737-8 meeting medium requirements, smaller 8-passenger Beechcraft King Air 350 aircraft based at RAAF East Sale in Victoria are also often drafted in for VIP transport roles.
Operated by No 32 Squadron for air combat officer training, the Beechcraft King Air temporarily joins the fleet when SPA aircraft are unavailable or visiting smaller airports.
The RAAF has also equipped one of its seven Airbus KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) aircraft – a former Qantas and Jetstar A330-200 airliner – with a forward VIP cabin for long-haul missions.
Based at RAAF Amberley near Brisbane and operated by No 33 Squadron, the VIP-configured KC-30A is painted grey and otherwise indistinguishable from the rest of the KC-30A fleet.
While used as a tanker/transport for the majority of the time, it is called into SPA service whenever the Prime Minister and delegation travels to overseas destinations because it’s large enough to accommodate travelling media and officials as well as the official party.
The VIP-configured KC-30A was ordered years after a 2007 Garuda Airways airliner crashed at Yogyakarta Airport in Indonesia. Twenty-one lives were lost, including five Australian media and officials unable to be accommodated on the BBJ carrying then Foreign Minister Alexander Downer.
The RAAF’s SPA aircraft are all maintained at Fairbairn by an industry contractor workforce from Northrop Grumman Australia under an $84 million contract renewed in 2018. This carries options via a rolling-wave contract to continue from 2024 through to 2037.
The KC-30A fleet is also maintained by Northrop Grumman Australia at its Amberley and Brisbane Airport facilities.