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Presidential plane bid to open as Code One lease contract nears end

Grappling with tarnished image following scandals, both Korean Air and Asiana Airlines to go all-in in bid

With South Korean leader Moon Jae-in entering the second year of his presidency, he has traveled overseas 11 times since he took office, via a “borrowed” Boeing 747-400.

Also called Code One -- the official name of the Republic of Korea Air Force aircraft carrying the president -- the 19-year-old model’s lease contract expires in March 2020. 

Code One, a Boeing 747-400 plane for South Korean President Moon Jae-in. (Korean Air)
Code One, a Boeing 747-400 plane for South Korean President Moon Jae-in. (Korean Air)

The country’s top two air carriers Korean Air and Asiana Airlines are hoping for the opportunity to clinch a new contract with the Air Force, which will authorize the operation of Code One.

During the Roh Moo-hyun administration in 2003, Korean Air and Asiana Airlines took turns to carry the president on his overseas trips. 

Roh’s successor Lee Myung-bak put the Code One operator up for a bid, and it was Korean Air that won a five-year contract at 11.5 billion won ($10.3 million).

Korean Air once again obtained a five-year order until 2020 from the Park Geun-hye government, receiving 14.2 billion won. President Moon continues to use the same plane. 

Once selected to be Code One, the plane needs to go through full-scale renovation that costs millions of won, industry insiders say.

“From decorating the exterior of the plane to remodeling the inside of the plane with customized facilities for the president, such as an office room and sleeping area, the plane needs to reinforce its protection function for the security of the president,” said an industry insider.

“The competition to win the Code One bid is fierce because the airline can gain an image as a verified air carrier with high satisfaction in security and sustainability,” he added. 

“It’s also a very good advertising opportunity for the air carrier every time the president goes on an overseas trip. This is exactly what both Korean Air and Asiana Airline need at moments like this,” he said.

President Moon Jae-in and first lady Kim Jung-sook board Code One for an overseas trip. (Yonhap)
President Moon Jae-in and first lady Kim Jung-sook board Code One for an overseas trip. (Yonhap)

Following the infamous 2014 “nut rage” incident involving Korean Air heiress Cho Hyun-ah, the air carrier was thrown back into crisis in March, when Cho’s younger sister Cho Hyun-min was embroiled in another scandal due to her misconduct during a meeting. Furthermore, suspicions of smuggling luxury goods involving Cho’s mother Lee Myung-hee emerged recently.

Just last week, Hanjin Group Chairman Cho Yang-ho underwent questioning by the prosecution over alleged tax evasion and embezzlement charges. 

The situation is not any better for Asiana Airlines.

In February, a sexual harassment scandal surrounding 73-year-old Kumho Asiana Group Chairman Park Sam-koo broke out. 

Employees posted on an anonymous message app that he had made inappropriate physical contact with female employees on numerous occasions.

This week, the airline was thrown into another controversy over the apparent suicide of an owner of the airline’s contracted catering business and alleged shady deals involving inflight meal suppliers.

According to Korea’s Air Force, it sent out a statement last month to request both Korean Air and Asiana Airlines to confirm their bids for Code One operator. 

Government officials said it may also request low-cost carriers to join the public bid, but industry experts view the possibility as unlikely, as LCCs mainly operate planes that are more suitable for short-distance trips. 

Some argue that the president should purchase a plane. 

According to government data, over 250 billion won has been spent over the past decade for the lease of Code One. 

The National Assembly’s budget planning department said that up to 470 billion won could be saved if the president purchases a plane and uses it for 25 years. Cheong Wa Dae officials, however, said that it would cost more than hundreds of billions of won for maintenance and repair cost.

Other countries have purchased planes to transport their leaders. US President Donald Trump has eight different Air Force Ones. Japan now owns four government planes, as it purchased two brand new Boeing 777-300ER planes that will be used from next year. China, France and Germany own two presidential planes each. 

By Kim Da-sol (