Driven ambition

Monocle brings you a new series on how world leaders travel, from their choice of car to their fleet of private aircraft. First off is German chancellor Angela Merkel, who, like her predecessors, opts for practicality over showiness.


  • August 2008


  • Reuters


  • Russell Bell

Germany may have the world’s fifth largest economy but its leaders recoil from displaying their nation’s wealth. So when Chancellor Angela Merkel heads off on an international mission, she finds herself walking up the stairs of some rather old planes, several of which were snapped up second-hand.

And despite coming from one of the world’s greatest car-producing nations, German chancellors tend to choose highquality yet modest German-made cars for personal use and only appear in the flashiest limousines when abroad. On a US visit, the chancellor Helmut Kohl even turned down the chance to ride in a Cadillac Northstar v8, preferring to walk from his accommodation to the White House, thus earning himself the nickname “Johnny Walker”.

The understated travel arrangements of German leaders are a consequence of the Second World War – in its aftermath, chancellors thought it wise to avoid any whiff of megalomania. In 2003, the word Luftwaffe painted on the chancellor’s aircraft was replaced by the less military sounding Bundesrepublik Deutschland.

The interior of the Airbus A310 VIP, in which Merkel usually travels, is also suitably bland. Redesigned in 1990 with conflicting advice from the wives of both the then chancellor and federal president, it is a palette of grey and blue, with laminate panelling and pear-wood features.

Merkel is known for her modest personal style. But onmajor trips she travels with an entourage. Her husband is usually left at home, while her make-up artist gets a seat. There are limits to this modesty lark. — MA


Merkel has to share the planes and helicopters of the Flugbereitschaft, the air force’s Special Air Mission section, with the federal president and various other politicians. This can be troublesome as the planes often need to be repaired.

The Airbuses are fitted with showers and a bed for the chancellor, a meeting room and telecoms unit. Today there is only one exemption from the strict no-smoking rule: when foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier lights up on board, that is a signal that others can too.

By 2011 the fleet will be replaced. The acquisition of two second-hand Lufthansa Airbus 340-300s will mean fewer fuel stops, and room for 140 passengers. The smaller jets will be replaced by two Airbus corporate jets and four ultra-long-range Global Expresses from Bombardier.


For many years a Mercedes-Benz was the preferred mode of transport for anyone in government. Konrad Adenauer, the first head of government after the Second World War, once tried a BMW instead. But the politician’s hat toppled off as he climbed in, so it was back to Mercedes for his successors until Gerhard Schröder took over in 1998. He added the VW Phaeton, Audi A8 and BMW 7, but kept the Mercedes S-Class. When expanding the fleet, Schröder joked, in reference to his four marriages, that “Audi is the only brand with four rings in the logo.”


Today, Merkel’s office says she “does not use trains to get from A to B”. When she opened the spectacular new central station in Berlin in 2006 she started by saying: “When I approached the station via helicopter…”