President-elect Donald Trump unexpectedly made an appearance in the Trump Tower lobby Monday morning and told reporters he thought the new Air Force One program headed by Boeing was “totally out of control,” citing a $4 billion price tag and indicating that maybe Boeing was taking advantage of taxpayers.
I’m not privy to the facts surrounding the new Air Force One or why Trump may have had the reaction he did, but the whole situation reminds me of when I was lobbying in support of a new presidential helicopter back in the day.
President George W. Bush began the process of looking into a redesign of Marine One, the presidential helicopter, an H-3 that was about 30 years old. It was time to upgrade. But the program quickly went way over budget — although the problem wasn’t with the manufacturers, who make great helicopters. The problem was all the requirements added on by other government agencies, which pushed up the cost dramatically.
A CBS News report from 2009, shortly before President Barack Obama made the decision to scrap the program, noted that the original contract was for 28 helicopters for $6.1 billion. But, “numerous Pentagon-mandated changes ballooned the price tag to $11.2 billion.”
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A very senior military official described it to me this way: “If you design an aircraft carrier and want the Marines to put a propeller on it and make it fly, it’s going to cost a lot of money.”
His point was that all the “improvements” and extras overwhelmed the fundamental purpose of reliable, safe transportation via helicopter for the president of the United States. In the case of the new Marine One, it was hard to determine who was in charge, and the buck never stopped anywhere. And today, those H-3s are still flying for the White House.
Again, I don’t know anything about the current Air Force One situation with Boeing, but just like with the Marine One program, I’m sure Boeing is contracted to make more than one Air Force One. And surely Boeing knows how to make a first-rate 747.
I have no doubt that it is capable of making a deluxe version, with added equipment that is custom-tailored for the president. After all, Air Force One is a flying advertisement for Boeing. Why wouldn’t it make the extra effort?
I suspect that the Secret Service, Air Force personnel and other emergency planners have added so many extra requirements to the updated Air Force One that it is on the brink of overwhelming the purpose of reliable transportation for the president during routine travel and under emergency circumstances.
Let’s face it: The emergency requirements for Air Force One, including the president’s need to launch a nuclear war from the air if necessary, haven’t changed much since the 1960s. But somewhere, somehow, someone has lost track of how to keep the essential needs in check.
Trump’s instincts are right. Perhaps calling everyone out in public before he had all the facts was wrong, but it seems to have been effective.
Trump had a call with Boeing Chief Executive Dennis Muilenburg on Monday, and then called into NBC’s “Today” show this morning to give a quick readout of that conversation, saying, “I’m going to negotiate prices. Planes are too expensive and we’re going to get the prices down, and if we don’t get the prices down, we’re not going to order them.”
Trump obviously knows extravagance when he sees it. It takes strong leadership to set boundaries, and it looks as though Trump is at least trying. Good for him.