UK officials considering using UK carrier AirTanker for deportation flights  

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The UK Government is reported to be close to finalizing an agreement with British charter airline AirTanker to operate its proposed and hugely controversial deportation flights from the UK to Kigali in Rwanda should its plans be given the green light in the coming days.  

Any agreement would come as the last part of a diplomatic jigsaw over the highly contentious policy that has been kicked around the oak-clad chambers of the UK’s Houses of Parliament since April 2022 when it was first proposed by the then-Prime Minister, Boris Johnson.  

The scheme, which has met with fierce criticism from various stakeholders since it was unveiled, would see anyone arriving in the UK illegally being deported to a purposely built detention in Rwanda, some 4,000 miles (6,400 kilometers) away to await the processing of their asylum applications outside of the UK. 

The policy, which has been redrafted several times to appease various political and other opponents to the Bill, is expected to pass the last set of legal hurdles still in its way and be passed into UK law by the end of April 2024. However, despite the facilities in Rwanda having been ready to accept detainees for many months, the UK Government has been struggling to source an airline willing to operate the controversial deportation flights. 

In the past, UK carriers such as Channel Express and Titan Airways, as well as Spanish carrier Privilege Style have all been retained for other similar flights. However, none of these carriers are now willing to be involved in such a contentious contract (Channel Express rebranded as Jet2 in 2002). 

Now, UK charter carrier AirTanker is said to be being lined up to take up the mission. AirTanker is no stranger to the UK Government, as it has run flights for the Royal Air Force and the Ministry of Defence under contract since 2008. Indeed, out of its current fleet of four Airbus A330-200s, three are operated for the Royal Air Force Air Command Division in a 320-seat passenger configuration and are predominately used for British troop-carrying sorties throughout the world.  

While AirTanker is a commercial entity entirely separate from the RAF, it happens to share an operating base with the RAF’s Air Command Division at RAF Brize Norton airbase in Oxfordshire, England. Two of the three aircraft also feature a hybrid RAF external color scheme while the other remains all white.  

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Although the UK Government has so far not officially disclosed the identity of the airline to perform the deportation flights should they get the go-ahead, sources within Rishi Sunak’s government have told several UK media outlets that AirTanker remains the preferred partner, given its previous experience of RAF operations and its special clearance to fly out of Brize Norton, a high-security military airfield protected by both civil and military police forces. 

Sources have said that detailed talks were held in early 2024 between the UK Government and AirTanker. It is understood to be one of several airlines that have held talks with the UK government in the last twelve months. Thousands of people emailed AirTanker earlier in April 2024 after a high-profile anti-deportation campaign group, ‘Freedom from Torture’, sought to persuade the company to rule itself out of the Rwanda scheme. However, AirTanker has so far not made any public comment on the speculation that it will be involved in their flights. 

In the meantime, Rwanda’s state-owned airline, RwandAir, allegedly turned down a UK Government-backed request to use its aircraft for deportations. Sources close to that round of negotiations confirmed that RwandAir was approached sometime in 2023 via talks held with the Rwanda Government but declined the offer. 

AirTanker operates its fourth aircraft on behalf of Jet2 (registered G-VYGL) to perform high-density passenger charter flights around Europe and long-haul destinations.  

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It will be interesting to see whether this part of the operation is affected in any way should AirTanker become the UK Government’s supplier of aircraft for any potential deportation flights – an operation that has historically been at the center of controversy and a focal point for protestors and disruptors for as long as they have operated. 

What are your thoughts on the deportation flights? Let us know in the comments section below.  

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