MEXICO CITY – Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador has made selling off the luxurious presidential jet a centerpiece of his austerity program, but there's just one problem: Nobody, it seems, wants to buy the white elephant.
López Obrador said Tuesday the Boeing Dreamliner will be returned to Mexico after a year on sale in the United States, where it piled up about $1.5 million in maintenance costs.
Bought by his predecessor, the jet is expensive to run and now configured to carry only 80 people, albeit with a full presidential suite with a bedroom and private bath. It became a symbol of López Obrador's campaign against high-living public officials in a country where half the population lives in poverty. “They abused (their privileges). They even used planes to go play golf,” López Obrador said.
While the Boeing 787 drew some interest while parked at an airfield in Victorville, California, over the last year, López Obrador said potential buyers had been unable to obtain financing for the estimated sale price of $130 million. That's a bit more than half what Mexico paid for the plane in 2012. "It was a bad deal from the start," the president sniped.
Among the ideas López Obrador is now entertaining is to barter it off in exchange for medical equipment, to sell it to a consortium of companies for executive incentive programs or rent it out by the hour, in hopes of paying off the remainder of outstanding loans on the plane.
Gone are the hopes it would raise a lot of money for anti-poverty programs. Mexico is now just hoping to cut its losses on the plane, which is too expensive to reconfigure back into a commercial airliner that normally carries as many as 300 passengers .
“This morning, the president has offered a new image of himself as a door-to-door salesman offering to sell, barter or rent an airplane,"said the opposition National Action Party, whose ex-president Felipe Calderon bought the plane.
Lopez Obrador, who has opted to fly tourist class on regular commercial flights and eschew travel abroad, has long railed against perks provided for public servants. Whenever possible, he likes to travel by ground in an SUV, and over the weekend posted a photo of himself waiting on the side of a road while a flat tire was repaired.
The president has also forbidden his cabinet from taking trips in government-owned executive jets, and on Tuesday he also announced a series of auctions that will sell off a total of 39 government-owned helicopters and 33 executive jets and small planes. The government is offering 19 planes and nine helicopters for sale in a first round of auctions, which it hopes will raise over $1 billion. Most of the aircraft in the first lot were used by the army, navy and president's office.
Many of the planes to auctioned off in later rounds belonged to the Attorney General's Office, raising the question of whether the sales could threaten key governmental tasks like law enforcement in drug detection and eradication programs.
López Obrador said there would still be enough aircraft to carry out needed tasks in disasters and emergencies. “The only planes that will remain are those used for security, those used by the army and navy ... for public service: air ambulances, firefighting planes, public safety, civil defense, but not for transporting officials,” he said.
But despite his distaste for high living, it is precisely as a business perk that the president hopes to sell off the presidential jet. López Obrador proudly showed off a brochure he had drawn up in a somewhat desperate-sounding sales pitch for the craft.
“You, you biggest producers, your elite sales team, your most prized associates can now enjoy a reserved flight experience until now only available to heads of state,” the brochure reads, adding the plane has “incomparable VIP capacity.”
In a scheme known as “fractional ownership,” the government hopes to sell off the plane in 12 “shares;” the buyers would have access to use the plane, and would pay operating costs. The brochure suggest the plane could be used for “brand exposure” or to “attract investors or global personalities to your corporation with greater ease.”
It may be a hard sell. At least one potential buyer — telecom magnate Carlos Slim, Mexico's richest man — is also known for an odd strain of austere personal habits, like wearing ties from his drug-store chain and eschewing computers in favor of writing longhand in notebooks.
López Obrador is even thinking of trading it to U.S. authorities in exchange for medical equipment. “We hand over the airplane, and you pay us in merchandise. That is, we need x-ray equipment, we need ambulances, imaging machines, laboratories,” the president said.
So visceral is López Obrador's disgust for the plane — he has vowed never to step foot in it — that he refused a reporter's suggestion that he board the jet just once, to publicize the sale. “No, no no, I won't ... but you can,” the president said.