Opinion

Boeing 777 may replace Air Force One | Brunell

It's about time to replace Air Force One, the president's plane; however, the new version may not be a Boeing 747. It may be a 777.

President Obama's 2014 budget allocated $1.14 billion through 2018 for the research and development of a new presidential jet. The total includes one replacement aircraft which could be purchased in 2017. While the Pentagon prefers the four-engine 747, there are a couple of other important factors to consider.

There is no question that the safety and security of the president are paramount, but increasingly cost is also a factor.

Flying Air Force One is expensive. In 2012, the Congressional Research Service estimated it cost $179,750 per hour to operate. In 2013, it jumped to $228,000 per hour.

Judicial Watch reported that taxpayers paid $7.3 million for the first family's 2012-2013 Christmas vacation flights to Hawaii, their 2013 beach vacation on Martha's Vineyard and for Obama to dine with fundraiser and DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg and appear on the "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno".

When Air Force One is used for political purposes, campaign organizations must reimburse the U.S. Treasury an amount "equivalent of the airfare that they would have paid had they used a commercial airline," according to the Congressional Research Service. Like his predecessors, President Obama often piggybacks official events onto his fundraising trips, which further reduces the amount campaign organizations must pay.

Oddly, the formula to determine what campaigns pay is a secret. Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, says the reimbursement rate on mixed events has remained a mystery over the course of several presidencies and only the White House counsel knows the formula.

So, for taxpayers, it may be better for the Pentagon to switch to the more fuel efficient Boeing 777.

Other governments are doing just that. The Japanese government is trading in its 747s for the 777X, which is as spacious as the 747 and costs less to fly. It will pay an estimated $832 million for the jets, which will go into service in 2019.

However, the Pentagon would prefer a modified 747-800, the jumbo airplane the company introduced a few years ago to capture a bigger share of the air freight market.

But slumping sales of 747s may force Boeing to discontinue the 747 production line long before the Pentagon is ready to decide. Orders for the 747 may stretch only through 2016. The current 30-year life cycle for the current Air Force One twins is up in 2017.

The good news is that, whichever plane the Pentagon chooses to replace Air Force One – the 777X or the 787-800 – it will be a Boeing aircraft assembled in Everett.

The Puget Sound Business Journal's Steve Wilhelm watches Boeing closely. He doesn't envision a battle between Airbus and Boeing like that which occurred a couple years ago when the Air Force asked for bids to replace the aging KC-135 refuelers.

Wilhelm quoted Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute: "The government might accept bids from companies other than Boeing, but it isn't going to buy an Airbus plane and the integration challenge of turning a 747 into the next generation Air Force One is just too demanding for anyone other than Boeing."

With America drowning in a $17.7 trillion debt, controlling government spending is essential.

Among other things, Congress and the president must take a fresh look at how Air Force One is utilized and the true reimbursement cost for presidential fundraising trips. As for presidential vacations and personal use of Air Force One, put the First Family on a budget just like other working families.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state's oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.

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