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German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock was left stranded in the Gulf after the latest in a series of plane malfunctions that forced her aircraft to jettison most of its fuel.
The Airbus A340-300 that was carrying Baerbock on a week-long trip to Australia, New Zealand and Fiji, suffered a technical fault with its wing flaps three minutes after take-off on Monday morning following a routine stopover to refuel in Abu Dhabi.
The pilot was forced to spend about two hours flying over the desert and the sea to dump around 80 tons of kerosene to enable the aircraft to land safely, prompting questions about the environmental damage caused by the Green Minister’s trip.
The 23-year-old plane touched down back in the United Arab Emirates at 5.33am local time. It was unclear whether the planned visit which was due to begin in Canberra on Tuesday would be canceled or would go ahead.
The German air force, which maintains and operates the diplomatic fleet, said that the fuel dump was a standard safety procedure that was necessary to ensure that the plane was not too heavy to land. It said that it was working at “full speed” to enable the delegation to continue its journey.
The glitch is one of a long string of incidents to befall German politicians making international trips with the government’s fleet of aircraft. They trigger regular bouts of angst in the German media about the damage to the country’s international image as a center of engineering prowess as well as questions about the state of the military.
Only three months ago, in May, Baerbock was forced to spend an extra night in Qatar after her plane suffered a damaged tire and mechanics were forced to fly a new tire from Germany.
In 2018, then-chancellor Angela Merkel had to make an emergency landing when her plane — the same one that was afflicted by Monday’s breakdown — suffered a defective electronic distribution box that caused multiple systems, including the radio, to fail. She missed the opening of a G20 summit in Argentina as a result.
In 2016, the former German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen, now president of the European Commission, got stranded on a trip to Mali because of a problem with the on-board computer.
Other ministers have suffered delays, cancellations or been forced to switch to commercial flights over the past decade after suffering last-minute problems.
The German air force is working to phase out the two aging A340s that have long formed the backbone of the government fleet but which have suffered growing problems.
On this week’s trip, Baerbock was due to travel to Australia on a different, almost identical A340-300, but it was unable to fly because of technical problems.
In January, chancellor Olaf Scholz made his maiden flight on a new VIP Airbus A350-900 aircraft, one of three purchased as part of an €1.2bn overhaul.
The German defense ministry said that the A340 had been chosen for Baerbock, rather than a newer model, based on an assessment of availability and the needs of other users.
A spokesperson pushed back at the suggestion that its fleet was less reliable than commercial airlines, insisting that the number of breakdowns and other problems was comparable.
“We are just a little smaller and sometimes perhaps a little more visible,” the spokesperson said, “especially here in the Berlin area.”