Spain’s Air Force One keeps breaking down, to the delight and embarrassment of Spaniards

King Juan Carlos takes matters into his own hands.
King Juan Carlos takes matters into his own hands.
Image: AP Photo/Remy Gabalda
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Earlier this week, an Airbus A-310 plane landed in Spain 45 minutes behind schedule. Why this otherwise mundane event made news across the country says something about the current mood in Spain.

The thing is, King Juan Carlos was on that plane. He was returning from a business trip in the Middle East, and only just made it back in time to catch a big soccer match where he was the guest of honor. What generated news was the manner of his delayed departure—a faulty fuel valve on one of the jets the military uses to shuttle the royal family and the prime minister around the world.

This was the fifth mechanical fault in six months for Spain’s small fleet of planes and helicopters reserved for its ruling elite—the country’s equivalent of Air Force One. Previous breakdowns led Prince Felipe to cancel a trip to Brazil and, later, force an emergency landing and nine-hour delay in the Dominican Republic en route to Honduras. Queen Sofia was also stranded briefly in the Dominican Republic on her way back to Spain from Guatemala. And a plane carrying prime minister Mariano Rajoy home from Dublin was forced to return to the airport shortly after takeoff.

The public has greeted the mechanical mishaps with a touch of schadenfreude; Spaniards suffering from a weak economy, high unemployment, and grinding austerity derive some pleasure from seeing the elites suffer inconvenience, however minor. It doesn’t help that both the majority political party and members of the royal family are also currently engulfed in corruption scandals.

At the same time, the coverage reflects certain national insecurities. As noted in an editorial in The Spain Report, there is the risk of “official state embarrassment caused when a Spanish royal flight breaks down again, at the very least causing delay to official business, if not slighting Brand Spain in the process.”

Planes break down all the time, of course, and problems with the second-hand Airbus that recently delayed the king are “more image than substance,” according to the minister of defense (link in Spanish). But appearances are important: Senior government figures generally try to project an efficient and professional image with their retrofitted jetliners, sleek motorcades, and other high-end logistics. A junky fleet of jets is just not a good look.

If Spain’s fiscal mess is so severe that it is struggling to keep its dignitaries in the air—an area where countries typically spare no expense—things must be pretty bad indeed. And that’s why the news of yet another snafu with a state-owned plane was met with a complex mix of delight, embarrassment, and indignation. Few flight delays are so symbolically charged.