Does Air Force One Really Need A New $4 Billion Upgrade?

In the fall of 2016, Donald Trump proved that with the help of his Twitter account, he could do anything, even if that meant the seemingly improbable feat of becoming the President of the United States. Not long after defeating his opponent Hillary Clinton in the 2016 general election, Trump showcased the power of his Twitter account once again. This time, a world-renowned aviation and aerospace company found itself on the receiving end of Trump’s infamous, knee-jerk Tweeting.

At the ripe hour of 5:52 in the morning on 6 December, Trump announced, “Boeing is building a brand new 747 Air Force One for future presidents, but costs are out of control, more than $4 billion. Cancel order!” Much like Trump’s controversial “Twitter order” about transgender soldiers in the military, the words “Cancel order!” didn’t immediately amount to actual policy, however much Trump might have wished for that to be the case. For now, Boeing continues to fulfill an order for the 747-8 plane, which is slated to serve as the next Air Force One. But Trump’s Tweet came with a cost: Boeing’s stock noticeably dipped after the Tweet.

Just as planes gulp oil down by the barrel, the process of building planes consumes money like few other enterprises. A single plane can cost an airline in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Even when airlines are able to get bulk discounts for buying multiple kinds of the same plane at once, they’re still paying large sums for each plane. Given that Air Force One gets billed to the taxpayer, Donald Trump isn’t wrong to want cost efficiency for his means of travel, but the four billion dollar price tag he quoted should be questioned.

Not long after Trump’s Tweet, reports came out about the nature of Boeing’s contract with the US government, and none of them ever suggested the plane was costing anything near 4 billion dollars. Bloomberg mentions a $170 million dollar contract, as do many other reputable sites. The Washington Post reports an initial Air Force budget of $2.7 billion dollars for the Air Force One program generally, not for a single plane as Trump’s Tweet insinuates. Currently, the new Air Force One plan involves the construction of two planes, not just one, meaning that even as costs remain high, the US government will get a long shelf life out of both planes. Newer planes are more fuel-efficient, which lowers costs, and considering that modern aircraft like those manufactured by Boeing can last decades, the up-front expense of the president’s plane will, in theory, balance out in the long run.

Donald Trump isn't wrong to want cost efficiency for his means of travel, but the four billion dollar price tag he quoted should be questioned.

The expenses of the US president, when tallied up, feel undeniably excessive. The president has 24/7 security detail, is transported in customized heavily armored cars, lives on a legendary and highly valuable piece of real estate that comes with other benefits like private chefs and waitstaff, and, yes, flies around on a one-of-a-kind airplane that puts even the ritzy first-class cabins of modern airliners to shame. Of the many perks that come with being the president of the United States, a nice if minor one is that you never have to worry about cramping yourself into an economy seat. The president doesn’t have to worry about legroom or overhead compartment space. One need only look to how Air Force One has been represented in shows that center on a US president to see the uniqueness of the executive office’s air travel. In The West Wing and House of Cards, even the seats used by the press corps that travels with the president look luxurious.

President Josiah Bartlett on The West Wing, flying on Air Force One
President Frank Underwood in House of Cards flying on Air Force One

Like any other world leader, the president requires secure travel — there’s a reason why US presidents don’t ride around in convertibles anymore. Moreover, the rationale behind Air Force One is that in case of an emergency that forces the president and his close staff to vacate the White House, Air Force One can serve as a “mobile Oval Office” where the president can conduct business and communicate with the ground. As Air Force One travels around, it’s ready to be backed up at a moment’s notice by US military planes, which will forcibly escort any unauthorized planes out of the Air Force One airspace — and, should said plane not cooperate, it will be shot down. (This helpful Today Show report on presidential airspace walks you through what happens if you tread too far into the wrong aerial territory.) All of those things cost money, and no small amount of it at that. However much Trump or the US taxpayer would like fewer expenditures, there’s no getting around cheaply when you’re the president.

But impulsive if not outright reckless Tweets notwithstanding, there is a legitimate question to be asked about Air Force One: what, if any, technological upgrades are required of so advanced a plane? The Air Force Ones currently in use by the US government (“Air Force One” does not refer to one specific plane, but rather to any plane on which the president is flying) have been around since 1987, putting them on the upper limit of their usability. At the very least, the president is due for a new plane, even if that plane doesn’t involve substantially different tech from its predecessors. But should a new plane development project be so expensive as the billions of dollars that President Trump alleged? Just how many airline accoutrements are necessary to make the “mobile Oval Office?” Government expenditures get paid with citizen’s tax dollars; while the layperson doesn’t typically know the intricacies of what is required to move the president from place to place, they aren’t wrong to wonder where all the money goes. With Air Force One, as with all airplanes, the answer is complex.

Air Force One Now

The president’s Air Force One planes may be near the end of their lives, but even in their geriatric state they remain impressive planes.

Breaking Down Air Force One

Boeing VC-25, a modified version of the 747-type plane.
Completion, 1986; first test flight, 1987; first implementation as permanent presidential transportation, 1990.
The original VC-25s cost around $390 million dollars apiece; Business Insider claims that per flight hour, Air Force One costs US citizens $206,337. That estimate includes not just plane fuel — a cost that makes even the most innovative planes commercially impossible — but also the president’s security detail and the aerial backup provided by the Air Force.
26 crew members, with the possibility for up to 102 passengers including crew (Source: Boeing).
53, 611 gallons (Source: Boeing).
*VC-25s, as well as the planes that will replace them, can be re-fueled in mid-air, unlike any other commercial plane.
*While members of the president’s roving press corps can expect to stay in their assigned seats for the flight, the president and First Lady get their own private sleeping quarters, and close members of the president’s staff get sleeping quarters as well.
*One of the office areas converts into a medical facility — an ersatz ER — in the event that the president or the First Lady becomes ill mid-flight. A physician is always available on-board for this purpose.
*The original interiors of the VC-25 were designed by then-First Lady Nancy Reagan in the late 1980’s.

The change from the VC-25 to the forthcoming 747-8 Air Force One design somewhat unsurprisingly coincides with the overall decline in the 747 itself, a plane synonymous with mass air transit. In July of 2017, CNN predicted that a 747-8 built by Boeing (one unlike the 747-8 type plane that will be delivered to the US president upon the completion of the new Air Force One project) would be the last 747 built by the company, due in large part to the decline in 747 orders by major global airlines. Airbus’ A380, the largest commercial airliner in the world, and Boeing’s own 787 “Dreamliner” currently rank far more popular than the 747, and as smaller two-engine planes continue to prove capable of traversing longer flights, airlines will opt in favor of a smaller but more efficient plane to save on fuel costs and ensure that they book as many seats as possible.

Because of the decline in 747 manufacturing overall, in addition to the unique structure of the VC-25 itself, any time the Air Force One planes need repairs or replacements of any kind, custom parts have to be ordered. Airline manufacturers are constantly working to improve upon the remarkable frames of their planes; even highly advanced airliners like Airbus’ megalithic A380 could do with an upgrade from time to time. The VC-25s, remarkable as they are, over the course of their thousands of flight-hours become a time capsule of what airplanes once looked like. Superficially, the 747-8s that will replace the VC-25s don’t look like a total overhaul of their predecessors: some fine-tuning here, some better defense mechanisms there. But in aviation, a little goes a long way, and it has to. By the time of their retirement the two VC-25s will have served as the transport for four presidents, three of who served two terms. The 747-8s could will therefore be flying at least four presidents, beginning with President Trump, and perhaps even more depending on the length of term served by the US’ next presidents.

Air Force One, Upgraded

The 747-8s that Boeing is under contract to produce for the US government boasts the following improvements to the current VC-25s:

  • Reduced Greenhouse Gas Emissions: When it comes to controversies related to climate change and emissions, air travel inevitably finds itself in the crosshairs. Noted non-fiction writer William Langewiesche, himself a pilot, argued in a piece on the 2006 Amazon mid-air collision that private air travel should be seriously reconsidered for the amount of emissions put out by airplanes. Commercial air travel proves to be the best-case scenario for what is a worst-case form of travel environmentally speaking: if airlines can ferry hundreds of people at once, the fuel consumption-per-passenger rate — which has only gotten better as airlines have turned to smaller, energy-efficient aircraft — improves. Even as commercial planes emit, they do so with optimal efficiency given the demand for travel. Air Force One was a more fuel-efficient option when it was debuted in the transition from the Reagan to the Bush I presidencies, but since then new jets like the A380 and the 787 Dreamliner have given the industry better options. The fuel consumption of Air Force One proves even more problematic when one considers that unlike a standard 747, which is arranged into multiple classes (First, business, coach), the VC-25s fit only around 100 people, making the fuel economy decidedly grim. Boeing promises that the 747-8s will produce 16 tons less greenhouse gases per trip.
  • Increased Range: The VC-25s cap off their flying range at 6,735 nautical miles; the 747-8s best that by almost 1,000 miles with a 7,730 nautical mile range. Given the need of the president to travel for diplomatic meetings and conferences at major international summits, longer range is an undeniable benefit of the 747-8.
  • Speed: Earlier this year, Wendover Productions released a research video based on an interesting observation: when one looks at older flight brochures for major US airlines, flights seem to get from A to B at a faster rate than modern airplanes do. Has flying gotten worse? It may seem so given the increase in flight hours, but in fact airlines have gotten better at calculating the efficiency of their planes. For an airplane, going faster means expending more fuel — which raises costs — and sacrificing efficiency, as airplane engines are designed such that there is an optimal range of speed at which they operate. In contrast to some (admittedly thrilling) Hollywood dramatizations, pushing a plane to top speeds isn’t an inherent good, and in fact for a commercial airliner it means higher costs for everybody involved. So when Boeing highlights the speed improvements of the 747-8 — which can go .1 Mach faster than the VC-25, at a near-supersonic .855 Mach — one shouldn’t think too much on it. The president and his staff will get to where they need to go at a slightly faster rate, but speed wasn’t a top priority for Boeing in upgrading the VC-25, a fact reflected by the modest increase in cruising speed. Airline manufacturers and airline corporations seek efficiency, not speed. If they preferred the latter, there’d be a lot more Concordes still in the air.
  • Noise: Boeing designed the 747-8 to be a quieter plane, a fairly uninteresting feature considering that most other major modern airliners have similarly reduced noise output. In the early decades of commercial air travel, noise regulations were commonplace, but with innovation the turbofan engines used by most passenger jets mitigated most noise concerns.

The 747-8s built by Boeing to be the next Air Force One will debut sometime after 2020, pending on final touches to the aircraft and any necessary test flights. Whichever president becomes the first to step on this new generation of plane will find an aircraft not unlike the one before it. The VC-25s that shuttled Georges H.W. and W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama already represent a unique milestone for commercial aircraft design; the 747-8 slightly refines that legacy, rather than totally reinventing it. Even the best of planes eventually sees the end of its usability, and for however cozy the interiors of Air Force One currently are, the metal fuselage that houses them has seen more than its fair share of years. When the VC-25s touch down on their final resting place — most likely, a presidential museum of some kind — they will still impress.

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Does Air Force One Really Need A New $4 Billion Upgrade?

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