by Anne KAURANEN, March 31, 2017
(AFP) - While celebrities like John Travolta and Tom Cruise are known for piloting their own planes, few world leaders fly themselves on state business, but Finland's Prime Minister Juha Sipila is one.
A keen aviator and committed to austerity -- and saving taxpayers' money -- Sipila occasionally pilots a private jet on his official travels -- and foots the bill himself to boot.
Since taking office in May 2015, the money-conscious former businessman has flown himself on 19 official trips in Finland and abroad, the prime minister's office told AFP.
Last year Sipila, 55, flew over 5,000 kilometres (3,000 miles) from Finland to the Mongolian capital Ulan Bator for an Asia-Europe meeting, and some 1,400 kilometres (900 miles) to meet fellow EU leaders in Bratislava.
The softly-spoken engineer earned millions as an IT entrepreneur before entering politics to become Finland's prime minister in 2015.
He has vowed to "fix Finland" and put the eurozone member's economy back on track -- and he appears to practise what he preaches.
He doesn't own the planes he flies, but rather rents them at his own expense. For the Ulan Bator trip he was at the controls of a Cessna 525 business jet, which seats between six and seven passengers.
His office told AFP it did not know the cost of the flights paid for privately by Sipila, but the Finnish weekly Suomen Kuvalehti estimated the expense at "hundreds of thousands of euros".
There is a related health issue: before taking office Sipila suffered from two sudden pulmonary embolisms, in 2013 and 2014.
This led Finnish media to speculate about the safety concerns raised by having the prime minister pilot a plane on official visits, often with his aides onboard.
- Toilet seat ride -
Sipila has reportedly fully recovered, and officials say they are not worried.
"We have thought this through and come to the conclusion that from a safety viewpoint we don't see any reason to restrict it," the head of the government's security detail, Jari Ylitalo, told AFP.
"If you look at it statistically, flying is safer than driving a car. His licences are valid, he's an experienced pilot and the flying equipment is in good condition," he added.
The prime minister, known for his modesty, doesn't always take to the cockpit himself.
When thorny coalition negotiations dragged on late one night in November 2015, Sipila missed the last commercial flight to his hometown Oulu in northern Finland.
After a deal was finally forged in the early hours, Sipila didn't order a private flight to be organised for him.
Instead, he boarded an ambulance flight about to take off and gave the last available passenger seat to his wife Minna-Maaria.
The prime minister himself sat on the small plane's toilet seat for the duration of the one-hour flight, Finland's largest daily Helsingin Sanomat reported.