Air Force One Costs Billions of Dollars Because It’s a Flying White House

  • Trump attacks Boeing contract weeks before taking office
  • Planes currently used by president are more than 25 years old

Trump's Transition: Boeing & Defense Contracts

Donald Trump took aim at one of the most visible emblems of the American presidency with his attack on plans for a new Air Force One, turning the iconoclastic message that got him elected on the very office he’ll occupy in six weeks.

In a tweet Tuesday morning, Trump said a contract with Boeing Co. to build two new versions of the presidential plane would be too expensive. He estimated the price to be $4 billion, adding: "Cancel order!"

The missive once again thrust a major U.S. corporation into the president-elect’s cross-hairs. A new version of Air Force One won’t be available until at least 2023, late in Trump’s second term if he is re-elected. Until then, Trump will inherit the aircraft that now transports President Barack Obama, replacing the billionaire’s beloved, gold-trimmed Boeing 757 that flew him across the country during his campaign.

Air Force One, though, is no mere 747. The plane is "an airborne White House," said Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. It is equipped with secure communications, classified defense systems and even an operating room, and is built to be refueled in mid-air and to survive a nuclear war. There is no easy replacement.

"There’s literally no other aircraft like this on planet Earth," Eaglen said.

Kennedy’s Body

The plane is an important symbol of American might and an historic and critical tool of the presidency. John F. Kennedy was the first president to enjoy an airplane built especially for his office, and Air Force One carried his body from Dallas to Washington after he was assassinated. The current incarnation of the plane, a Boeing 747-200B, first flew in 1990. For many Americans, Air Force One’s most memorable recent moment came on Sept. 11, 2001, when President George W. Bush stayed aloft for hours as his advisers frantically sought to determine the nature and scope of terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

Because it is not mass-produced, replacing the plane is expensive. Independent analysts say that Trump’s estimate of $4 billion is probably not far off base, though that would be the price tag for two planes. By comparison, the most modern fighter jet in the U.S. inventory, the F-35, is projected to cost about $379 billion for 2,443 aircraft. Boeing is also the only U.S. company that can supply the president’s plane, eliminating competitive pressure on the price.

"It’s either Boeing or Airbus, and there’s no way the president of the United States is going to fly around the world in a European airplane," said Mark Cancian, a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and retired Marine Corps colonel.

Boeing executives contacted Trump transition team officials after the president-elect’s Air Force One tweets, according to three people familiar with the discussions. The company did not have advance notice about the tweets, the people said. They requested anonymity because the discussions were not publicly announced.

The company indicated to Trump’s aides that it sought to build an aircraft that was both cost effective and secure. A deciding factor in the cost, the executives told Trump officials, are contract specifications by both the U.S. Air Force and the Secret Service. Should the government agencies reduce the cost of their specifications, the total cost of the replacement planes could fall, the executives noted.

‘Hardened’ Systems

Air Force One is so costly in large part because of the highly classified systems on board. The plane is "hardened" against nuclear attack and can withstand the electromagnetic pulse from an exploding atomic bomb. It can be refueled in flight. It is equipped with countermeasures against attack by surface-to-air weapons and other aircraft. And its communications systems can securely place the president in contact with virtually anyone in the world and enable him to command the U.S. military, including its nuclear arsenal, while in flight.

The White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, said today that the current version of the plane is "nearing the end of its predicted life."

Trump’s tweet set off speculation about whether he will seek a broader upheaval of procurement practices at the Pentagon, long criticized for wasteful spending on weapons and other equipment including the F-35.

"It’s a curious place to start, but it’s also a symbolic place," said Phillip Carter, a former Army officer and Obama administration adviser who directs the Military, Veterans and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security. "By signaling that he will disclaim this particular trapping of office and put that on the chopping block, I think it signals to the Pentagon there are no sacred cows that are safe."

Obama’s Helicopters

Trump is not the first incoming president to take aim at a trapping of the office. The government canceled a contract to build as many as 28 new helicopters to transport the president in 2009 after cost projections soared to $13 billion. Obama at the time called the aircraft "an example of the procurement process gone amok."

It’s unclear whether Trump’s criticism of Boeing and the presidential aircraft is driven by policy concerns, politics or both. Yesterday, the Washington Post reported that Boeing and Lockheed Corp were planning to move production of older models of fighter jets to India, one of the biggest customers of such aircraft. A little more than an hour before Trump’s tweet, the Chicago Tribune published an interview with Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg in which he fretted that Trump’s opposition to free-trade deals could cost his company and the the U.S. business overseas.

Trump’s tweet could be the start of a negotiation. Boeing is in only the early stages of planning and building Air Force One’s replacement. The company said in a statement today that it is under contract for $170 million "to help determine the capabilities of these complex military aircraft that serve the unique requirements of the President of the United States."

"We look forward to working with the U.S. Air Force on subsequent phases of the program allowing us to deliver the best planes for the President at the best value for the American taxpayer," the company said.

‘Scrub’ Numbers

Once he takes office, the Air Force may meet with Boeing and say, "‘Hey, the president’s talking about canceling this thing; let’s see if we can scrub the numbers a little,’" Cancian said.

The two sides could agree to shave a few percentage points from the cost of the new planes as a face-saving compromise, he said, or agree to a thorough "scrubbing" of the plans to cut more than 5 percent but probably less than 10 percent of the price, without touching on any core capabilities such as nuclear hardening, midair refueling and sophisticated communications capabilities.

The third option is to cancel the program, Cancian said, opting for "life extensions" of the existing Air Force One until there is a greater imperative for new planes.

"They are fabulously expensive but I think most people believe that’s what it costs to get an aircraft to do what you want these aircraft to do, which is very, very special," he said.

— With assistance by Kevin Cirilli, Jennifer Jacobs, Anthony Capaccio, Mike Dorning, and Alan Levin

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
    LEARN MORE