President-Elect Trump managed to garner still more hate this week by daring to criticize the probably $4 billion cost associated with replacing the current two 747-200 jets that do duty as Air Force One.
Snide and snarky comments erupted every which way, and even normally mild mannered aviation industry commentators found themselves unable to contain their sarcasm. I mean to say – the impertinence of the man, for daring to suggest that $4 billion was too much to pay for two new 747-8 planes! What does he know about such things?
Other people, never bothered by the facts, suggested that perhaps President-Elect Trump would prefer to fly in his own 757, already dubbed ‘Trump Force One’, rather than in a new 747-8 – a risible suggestion because the new planes aren’t expected to be delivered until after the end of the second term of his presidency.
And then, perhaps unkindest of all, were the folks who said ‘It is only $4 billion, there are much more important things to focus on’. Newsflash to such people – you can never have the word “only” next to the number four billion. Four billion is unthinkably huge. The classic illustration is the man on the street corner, giving away $5 bills (the classic example involves $1 bills, but let’s think big here) to everyone who walks past. Assume he gives out a $5 bill every second, and lets have him doing this every minute, nonstop, all day and all night, 24/7/365. How long does it take to give away the entire $4 billion? The answer is 25 years and some change left over. Except that, if the money was invested at even as little as 4%, he’d never stop, because the interest being earned is the same as (or more than) the rate at which he is giving the money away.
Still not convinced? Say he had all the $5 bills in a bundle alongside him, to make it easy to hand them out. The bills would weigh about as much as two 747-8s, and if stacked up, would make a pile a bit over 50 miles high. Four billion is an enormous number.
Mr Trump and I are of like mind when it comes to the outrageous projected cost of the two new Air Force Ones – and note that the total program cost for their replacement is unknown at this stage, because the disclosed projections to date do not extend all the way to the actual day the planes are delivered and the final check handed over.
How Much Will the Two New Planes Actually Cost?
Some commentators have sneered at Mr Trump (well, almost all have!) and said that he can’t even get his facts straight, and is exaggerating the true cost of the two planes. Is he?
It is true that the disclosed costs to date seem to vary from between about $2.8 and $3.1 billion, and it is true that this number is less than $4 billion. But – these are only for program costs through 2021. The planes are not expected to be delivered until perhaps 2025. Those additional four years are not going to happen for free. One could also wonder – why is it taking ten years, from the decision in 2015 until the receipt of the planes in 2025? But that is perhaps a topic for Mr Trump to tweet about, another time!
So the people who call Mr Trump a fool and for exaggerating the total cost of the planes are probably more likely to be themselves fools. If we’re all still here in 2025, or whenever the planes actually are delivered, let’s see what the total cost comes in at – and let’s also concede that some of the costs are likely to be ‘buried’ in all sorts of unusual and unexpected budget line items, particularly the costs for some of the planes’ more secret features and capabilities.
Indeed, the costs have already almost doubled. This article reports the initial budgeted cost was $1.65 million and it has now grown to about $3 billion (through 2021) and says it thinks the cost of the planes (which it assesses at $800 million) would be in addition to the $3 billion budget for their modifications.
Perhaps part of the answer for ‘why so long’ and ‘why so expensive’ is that Boeing is charging a tidy $170 million just to do initial research and development into the concept of modifying the 747s to act as Air Force One. That’s an unthinkable cost that probably will result in nothing other than Boeing announcing ‘okay, we’ve spent the $170 million, and we’ve determined that we can indeed modify the 747s to make them into Air Force Ones’, and the provision of some pretty ‘artist impression’ sketches of what the planes will look like.
Now, remember when I said that $4 billion is an unthinkably enormous amount of money? Well, so too is $170 million. Let’s say Boeing pays its engineers and scientists $120,000 a year, and has associated other costs of employment of $50,000 a year per person. $170 million would pay for 1,000 of these very expensive man years of work. One can only ponder how it costs Boeing $170 million to determine that a new 747-8 could be adapted to Air Force One specifications, very similar to how their earlier 747-200 previously had been already.
Do We Need to Replace the Current 747-200 Planes?
There are plenty of facile comments referring to the 747-200s as nearing the end of their life. But what actually is their life? By what measure are these two planes nearing the end of that life?
The Air Force’s main bomber (the Boeing B-52) was designed in the late 1940s, and the planes still in active duty service today first flew in the late 1950s/early 1960s – about sixty years ago. Some sources suggest the plane will continue in active service for a total life span of 100 years. Maybe we should convert a B-52 and make that Air Force One?
Most of the Air Force’s fighters are also older than the 747-200s (the two current AF1 planes entered service in 1990). Clearly the concept of life span is subjective.
Furthermore, the AF1 planes have fewer flight hours and fewer takeoff/landing cycles on them than is typical for most commercial 747s, so simply applying commercial life concepts isn’t accurate.
So, do we need to replace the currrent 747-200 planes? No, we definitely don’t. Certainly, modern electronics have changed tremendously, but the solution to that is simply to refit the planes, not to totally replace them.
What Plane Should Replace the Current 747-200 Planes?
When (or if) we replace the two 747-200s, what sort of plane should be used as a replacement?
Even if we agree that the planes should be built by Boeing rather than Airbus, why does it make sense to choose a plane that is, today, almost obsolete – the 747? A plane which costs more to buy and more per hour to operate than any other Boeing plane?
Is there any reason other than because it is the biggest American passenger plane, to choose it over a newer design and style of plane, in an early/mature part of its life cycle, such as a 777 or 787? Some models of these newer planes could save $100 million each over the comparable purchase costs of a 747. Or why not a 767, in line with the Air Force’s purchase of 767s as in-flight refuelling tankers – that would mean there is an efficient spares and maintenance network already in place. A 767 would be the least expensive of all the options.
Historically, the reason for choosing the 747 was the need for the plane to have four engines for greater safety. But these days, every commercial plane, except for the 747 and A380 (neither of which are selling in any appreciable quantity) has two engines, and most are rated as safe enough to fly five hours or more away from the nearest runway. How safe do we need AF1 to be?
If the concept of ‘more engines are better’ is one that the nameless authorities who make these decisions refuse to budge from, well, isn’t that another reason to choose an eight-engined B-52?
If the twin engined planes are – as they have convincingly shown themselves to be – so amazingly safe and acceptable for ‘ordinary people’ surely they are safe enough for the President? Or, if normal planes are too dangerous for the President, why do we accept the risk of flying in them ourselves? From my selfish perspective, while there are thousands of people, all of whom could be and would love to be President, there’s only one of me, of my daughter, and of other people closest to me – I want their lives to be valued at least as highly as a politician’s life!
Some people might say that the President needs to have the biggest plane possible. But I challenge them to explain why that is. The Prime Minister of Britain travels around the world on normal commercial airplanes. Okay, so he is seated in first class, and maybe even is allowed to check an extra bag for free. But look who is behind him in business and coach class – there is a plane load of ordinary passengers also on board. The same goes for most other heads of state.
We are told the US President has to have special communications in case he decides to initiate World War 3 in the middle of a flight. This, and various other somewhat specious claims would suggest our President is a virtual dictator, and unable to delegate any Presidential power, even for a few hours while on a plane. Maybe that is so, but does he need an enormous 747-8 for this? All he needs are a couple of fancy radios, surely, and with modern electronics being so amazing, they probably weigh only 20 lbs a piece and are each no larger than the size of a regular carry-on bag. After all, when he is driving around, there is just the one briefcase sized ‘football’ that carries all the authorization gadgetry and release codes needed; why is it when he chooses to fly, he then needs the largest plane the US makes? For that matter, with most planes now having internet, isn’t all he needs a computer with a secure VPN connection?
We also again note that the heads of government for other nuclear powers (such as Britain) seem able to come up with some arrangement for while they’re enjoying an ordinary flight on an ordinary plane.
Another reason for the big plane is a claim the President needs to travel with a large staff. But, does he really? How large? Perhaps a case could be made for a dozen other people as part of a traveling delegation, half a dozen aides, some secretaries, assistants, and of course, some cabin crew and extra pilots, a dozen Secret Service agents, and surely that is enough – less than 50 in total. Try it yourself – make a list of all the people who the President couldn’t manage without having personally present for 12 hours, or a list of all the people he needs to travel with for whatever reason.
A 747-8 can hold 410 passengers in a mix of coach, business and first classes, and is rated to have up to 605 passengers in total. Isn’t that overkill?
Do we really need to provide free travel to a horde of hangers-on and journalists, and, if we do, must they be given first class type seating? Wouldn’t premium economy or business class seating be acceptable?
Okay, we get the concept of the President having an office for private meetings on board, and we don’t even begrudge him a private suite for sleeping/showering/changing in either, and perhaps a couple of other private offices too for other people. And even if we allow for 50 other people traveling, on a 777 or 787 with say seven business or high-end premium economy seats across, that is only six or seven rows of seats that need to be placed at the back. Allow for a generous 44″ seat pitch, and seven rows, each of say seven seats, and you need only 25 linear feet of space on the plane for 49 people in business class seating.
Have there been any suggestions the 747-200 planes were too small? For that matter, how did presidents ever manage on the earlier, very much smaller, 707 planes? Why does a modern president need so much more space? As best I’m aware, the 747-200 has always been considered generously spacious. The 747-8 is massively larger than the 747-200. It is 20 ft longer, has a much larger upper deck, and weighs 485,300 lbs instead of 375,100 lbs.
So – does our President need the biggest 747 ever built? We’ll agree he probably should have a plane. And a spare. But a 747-8? No way. Surely a 777 or 787 would be more than sufficient. Or a B-52. 🙂
How Much Do Normal 747-8 Planes Cost ?
Many commentators have also uncritically quoted the cost of a 747-8 as part of the overall program cost. Boeing lists the plane for $378.5 million, and this has been more or less the cost quoted.
But unless you are the kind of person who always happily pays the ‘second sticker’ price on a car, you’ll know that Boeing has probably never sold a plane, in its entire corporate life, at full sticker price. While the real prices it sells planes for are subject to some guesswork, 40% discounts are far from uncommon, and with Boeing being desperate to get any orders it can for the 747-8, it is reasonable to expect that the actual selling price of a 747-8 is no more than $200 million and – in the unlikely event the government drove a hard bargain – potentially could be less than $190 million each.
About the $4 billion
Okay, we’ve no idea how much a super-fancy radio costs, or what it costs to add an air-to-air refueling capability, or to stick some IR jammers onto the tail of the plane. But we can make some guesses about some of the costs of a new Air Force One, and we’ll aim way high on the costs for other things. Walk through this with us, and see if you can see where the $4 billion will go.
Buying the planes
First, if AF1 is to be a 747-8, the cost of buying the planes – before customization – should not exceed $200 million each. We could save $50 – 100 million each on purchase costs, and who knows how much on operational costs, if we chose a smaller 777 or 787.
Deluxe/executive custom fit-out
Second, a deluxe luxury/executive package to turn a 747-8 into a private jet generally is sometimes quoted at costing around the $100 million mark.
In truth, our President doesn’t need ultra-extravagant luxury and gold plated bathroom fittings; but at the same time, it is fair and reasonable to have it well fitted out, and with perhaps slightly less plastic than is normally to be found in a modern passenger jet.
So we expect that the $100 million might be able to be reduced somewhat, and indeed, it should then be reduced substantially further because of a ‘quantity discount’ for two. The custom costs for outfitting a luxury/private plane in part reflect the one-off bespoke nature of everything and the up-front design/development costs; if two planes are to be done at the same time, the second plane should be much less expensive than the first. But we’ll keep to the $100 million figure, while noting how extravagantly ‘over the top’ this number is.
Air to air refueling
We admit. We’ve no idea how much it costs to add an air to air refueling option to a plane – it isn’t a standard option offered by Boeing! But on the other hand, it is plain simple ordinary and boring stuff, not rocket science. We’re talking about a bit of hose and pipe, a few valves and fittings and other assorted plumbing. There are so many different variations on air to air refueling equipment already in use in the Air Force – including on the current 747-200s, that we’d expect there is something off the shelf that could be added with little drama or undue cost.
Now, remember my earlier point that even $1 million is a lot of money? How much pipe and hose and fitting do you think you could buy for that? An incredible amount! But let’s allow $10 million per plane, just for the air to air refueling.
For security reasons the plane has to have a set of air stairs built into it, so if something goes wrong, the President can still get on or off the plane without any ground support resources. Many planes have air stairs already – there’s nothing very special about them, and they are easy to add; the current 747-200s have them from a lower cargo hold level door so as to make them shorter and simpler. $100,000 to add air stairs? Let’s call it $1 million. No, let’s be even more profligate and call it $5 million – and if you can explain/rationalize/justify spending $5 million on a simple bit of aluminum unfolding stairs, then please call Boeing – they’ll be sure to add you on staff immediately!
Special and secure communications
This is one of the things that ‘experts’ say as if it is a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card. They put on a meaningful tone of voice and adopt a superior expression that implies ‘you couldn’t possibly second guess us on this’ and then tell us that this is essential, vital, and – of course – expensive.
Those three claims, in the order just listed, are true, true, and nonsense. All the secure communications equipment needed on the Air Force One planes is already in existence, in use, in other places already. We just need two more sets of the current secure comms equipment that is widely used through all our Defense Forces. Some $10,000 radios – well, let’s allow for a military ‘non-discount’ and allow them to puzzlingly increase in cost to $100,000 radios. A scrambled fax machine, perhaps. And, exactly, what else? Nothing else. That’s all that is needed. What else would a plane need that isn’t already contained within each of the probably dozen different copies of the presidential limousine? If it can be squeezed into the limo, surely it doesn’t need an entire 747-8 to hold it.
Let’s now go wild and crazy, and allow not just for $100,000 per plane, and not just $1 million, but let’s allow for unthinkable extra costs and make it $10 million per plane for whatever fancy comms gear might be required.
Electronically hardening the plane
A modern day form of vulnerability is an EMP – a blast of electromagnetic energy when a nuclear device detonates, and which can fry electronics for potentially a thousand miles in every direction. The military assure us that they’ve already ‘hardened’ their equipment to protect it from such EMP attacks. Fortunately, a plane is 95% protected from EMP effects to start with because it creates most of what is called a ‘Faraday cage’ – a way of blocking the EMP effects.
We’ll assume there are some remaining EMP vulnerabilities in the 747-8 to start with, and so we’ll allow a reasonable sum to do the necessary testing and then to harden both planes. A few million dollars for testing (there are EMP test facilities already available) and then some millions of dollars to resolve any vulnerabilities. What do you think – $5 million per plane? Let’s double that, and call it $10 million, then double it again and call it $20 million.
Physically hardening the plane
How about protecting the plane if people are shooting at it? What about if a fighter plane (from where, exactly?) suddenly attacks it with machine guns/cannon? (We’ll talk about missiles separately.) Or maybe a bomb goes off close to the plane?
We are proudly told that the present Air Force One planes can continue flying even if a nuclear weapon explodes on the ground beneath them. That’s actually not as amazingly impressive as you might think (and almost certainly has a disclaimer about how large a device it is that explodes beneath them, too). The plane at altitude can have as much as eight miles of vertical distance between the ground and itself. This page tells us that a 1 megaton device has a 1 psi overpressure blast radius of 7.4 miles – 1 psi is described as ‘residences are moderately damaged, commercial buildings sustain minimal damage’. Even normal planes may be able to withstand that with little more effect than flying through a thunderstorm.
As you know, if you’ve ever looked at the ‘skin’ of a plane while boarding, it is surprisingly thin, and made out of an aluminum alloy (or composite plastic even). That’s not going to stop any sort of ‘kinetic attack’ – ie bullets, or explosions. There’s an easy solution. Simply add armor plating.
By way of example, the Presidential limousine has 8″ thick doors, and is said to weigh in the order of 15,000 – 20,000 lbs. That’s probably 10,000 – 15,000 lbs more than a regular car of similar dimensions would weigh.
Which points to a problem. The 747-8 weighs 485,300 lbs empty, with a maximum landing weight of 763,000 lbs (in its freighter form) and a maximum take-off weight of 987,000 lbs. So we could add about 180,000 lbs of extra material to the empty plane. But if it takes two or three times extra for the weight of a steel vehicle to make it reasonably secure, how many more times than 485,300 lbs would we have to add to the aluminum/composite plane to give it a similar high degree of armor?
Clearly, this is totally not possible. But some selective hardening of some selected parts of the plane would certainly happen. However, this is no big deal – it is low tech type work, and is not likely to add more than a few million dollars to the plane. Each of the presidential limos are suggested to cost somewhere between $300k and $1.5 million, which suggests armor plating isn’t ridiculously expensive. But let’s allow $10 million per plane for this type of strengthening.
Presidential escape pod
Every source always maintains there is no such thing as a presidential escape pod on the Air Force One planes. I don’t believe that. And if there isn’t, I’d say ‘Why not?’ and suggest there should be.
In its simplest form it wouldn’t need to be anything more sophisticated than a simple zero/zero ejection seat. Half a million dollars perhaps for a pair of those.
In a more sophisticated form, all it needs to be is something that falls out of the bottom of the plane and then pops a parachute to fall gently to the ground. Sure, it would be necessary to pre-cut a trap-door for the pod to fall through, and probably move some load bearing beams around, and reroute some wiring. Let’s call that a $10 million item. Oh, okay. Let’s double it $20 million per plane for some sort of ejection/survival device (and remember that we’re allowing for the cost of something we’re told doesn’t exist!).
How about the risk of attack from a missile – either launched from the ground or from a plane? That’s definitely something to consider. But these days even ordinary commercial airplanes are starting to include anti-missile defenses – detectors that spot incoming missiles by their heat flares, with matching laser jammers to burn out/blind the heat seeking ‘eye’ of the missile. Add some lower tech flares and chaff dispensers as well – all of this being ordinary ‘off the shelf’ type stuff such as you’d find in most other Air Force planes and military transports. How much for that? A couple of million? Shall we call it $10 million per plane?
This is ultra speculative; we don’t know if there are plans to enhance the plane’s ability from beyond being able to defend itself to being able to mount a counter attack against enemy threats. Might it have a ‘pod’, similar to what new stealth-designed planes have, that can pop out of the bottom of the plane and then launch various ‘fun stuff’ towards air and land threats?
We’ll guess this might be the case, and we’ll go wild and crazy and allow $50 million for these capabilities (there’ll need to be fuselage modifications and strengthening, perhaps rerouting some of the internal wiring and other systems).
A fancy paint job
Oh yes, we need to paint the plane in Air Force One colors. Let’s toss in another $100,000 for that, in case Boeing doesn’t do it already, for free.
Adding It All Up
Okay, so how much have we spent? Adding up all the items above shows a total cost of about $435 million per plane. $870 million for two. Let’s now allow for waste, management oversight, and other sundry overhead, and call it a total project for $1 billion.
Now, your turn. See if you can fairly add another $3 billion to the costs above. And, as motivation, if you can’t, you have to agree to say in public, ‘Donald Trump is right’.
Of course, the real issue is nothing to do with our President-Elect, although we have to thank him for raising it publicly. I’m happy to even agree to double the costs (which in many cases I’ve doubled once or twice already beyond what seems reasonable). If we leave the plane purchase costs the same and double the development costs, that brings us up to $1.34 billion. Which is still only one third the probable costs, as seems likely (but which still may increase between now and 2025).
Which exposes the really big question. If this single, simple, project, can be reduced two thirds in cost, and potentially reduced still further if we switch from a 747 to a smaller plane, how many other government programs out there can also be halved, without losing any of their effectiveness?