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Call it coincidence or call it a political jinx, but Prime Minister Paul Martin stumbled on the way to his first flight on the VIP Airbus that his predecessor dubbed the "flying Taj Mahal."

Mr. Martin slipped as he turned to look at photographers while climbing the plane's metal stairs yesterday. He quickly recovered with a smile and a wave.

Mr. Martin, his wife, Sheila, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper and Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe were heading east to join NDP Leader Jack Layton, who had made other travel arrangements, for the ceremony in Halifax marking the return of the body of Lieutenant Chris Saunders.

The submariner died of smoke inhalation after fire broke out last week aboard HMCS Chicoutimi.

Mr. Martin was to leave soon after the ceremony for a six-day European visit that will include meetings with political leaders in Russia, Hungary and France.

He was flying on the once-controversial Airbus that was lavishly refitted in the last days of former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney's tenure.

Jean Chrétien refused to use the plane that he likened to the Taj Mahal, saying its reputed eight-seat dining room, entertainment area, foldout beds and shower were "much too extravagant."

Taxpayers spent $56-million for the dolled-up plane in 1992.

Mr. Chrétien tried to sell it when the Liberals took office, but the jet apparently wasn't fancy enough to lure such prospective buyers as the Toronto Blue Jays, Madonna or Kenny Rogers.

After millions more were spent on refits to prepare the plane to carry troops, reporters toured a much-downgraded craft before yesterday's departure.

The shower outside Mr. Martin's in-flight conference room isn't much bigger than what he'd find on a recreational vehicle.

"I think he'd have a hard time actually washing his toes without banging his head," said Major John Komocki, one of the pilots.

The entertainment area is now little more than a TV with a couple of couches in a loud fabric reminiscent of a casino. The entire VIP section, panelled in tacky wood veneer, takes up about one-third of the aircraft.

No opulent dining room was in sight, and the rest of the plane's 150 seats look much like any other passenger jet.

Mr. Martin had planned to start using the plane for long-haul trips, but not for his first extended tour. A fuel leak on the only other available jet forced him to change plans.

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