Sure, it has plush leather seats, a bed and abundant hot meals served on plates emblazoned with the presidential seal. But there are more critical reasons the president of the United States wants — and needs — Air Force One.
The aircraft is equipped to provide instant communications with leaders across the globe, protect against a nuclear attack and allow the leader of the free world to quickly escape from potentially dangerous situations.
In short: It’s not just about riding in style.
“This plane might be attacked by sophisticated hackers, by electronic jammers, by enemy fighter aircraft or maybe drones,” said Loren Thompson, a defense consultant with the nonprofit Lexington Institute, a Washington-area think tank focused on national security. “It must be able to protect itself against all of those threats without any help from other planes.”
The blue-and-white plane that boasts the words “United States of America,” the American flag and the presidential seal – which Jackie Kennedy worked on – is well-known across the world as a symbol of the nation, prompting countless references in movies, TV shows and books.
The presidential aircraft is one of the most visible symbols of the United States of America at home and abroad,
Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James
On Tuesday, President-elect Donald Trump threatened to cancel the order for a new Air Force One, which is being developed for presidents starting in 2024. He cited what he called cost overruns, but the Pentagon, airplane manufacturer Boeing and defense experts say they are unfamiliar with his numbers.
John F. Kennedy was the first president to fly in a plane specifically built for his use, in 1962. Since then, presidents have used several other planes.
Air Force One is actually the name of whatever Air Force aircraft the commander in chief flies in. Right now that usually refers to a pair of specially configured Boeing 747-200B series aircraft, acquired in 1990, which carry the tail codes 28000 and 29000. The Air Force says the two planes are near the end of their useful lives.
Others in the fleet include military versions of the 757, 737 and Gulfstream V. The president also has flown aboard unmarked Air Force planes such as the C-17.
The military versions of the 747s have 4,000 square feet spread across three floors with an office for the president, a conference room and a medical suite that can be used as an operating room. They provide enough space for White House advisers, Secret Service officers and traveling press to accompany the president, as well as a doctor, who is always on board.
It is capable of refueling midair, equipped with electronics that can protect against an electromagnetic pulse and functions as a mobile command center in the event of an attack. It’s also able to feed 100 people at a time.
I think the American people would expect that future U.S. presidents would benefit from unique and upgraded capabilities while they are traveling and representing the interests of the United States around the world
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest
“No matter what you do it’s very expensive aircraft,” said Mark Cancian, who worked on defense budget issues at the Office of Management and Budget and is now a senior adviser with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Cancian said the plane must do four things no other aircraft did: Protect against nuclear explosions, fly long range, boast sophisticated communications including teleconferencing capabilities and provide enough room for the president’s entourage.
“This is a plane that might need to operate in a nuclear war, so it has all sorts of features that you would never put in a commercial jetliner,” Thompson said.
During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump flew his own plane, a smaller 757 Trump bought from Microsoft founder Paul Allen that was modified with gold plating and Trump family crests.
What makes the aircraft expensive are the modifications needed to allow the president to communicate decisions safely and securely while aboard and to give the aircraft defensive capabilities if it comes under attack, said an Air Force official who is familiar with the aircraft but spoke only on the condition of anonymity because the person had not been authorized to speak on the matter.
“This is a White House on wings,” the official said. “There are more capabilities on that aircraft than you’ll find on any other aircraft.” Any Air Force One should allow the president “to run the country” from the skies, the official said. “It’s not comfort items on the aircraft” that bring the make so high.
The decision to replace the aircraft far predates Trump’s victory. The Air Force announced in January 2015 that Boeing would develop two replacement 747-8 aircraft. Boeing, the only U.S. company that builds a jetliner as big, manufactures planes in Washington state and South Carolina.
The plane is totally out of control. It’s going to be over $4 billion for Air Force One program and I think it’s ridiculous. I think Boeing is doing a little bit of a number. We want Boeing to make a lot of money, but not that much money
The new plane “will be a four-engine wide-body, commercial derivative aircraft, uniquely modified to provide the president, staff and guests with safe and reliable air transportation with the equivalent level of security and communications capability available in the White House,” according to a Government Accountability Office report.
The new planes will include upgrades to electrical power, communication systems, work and rest environments, military avionics, the self-defense system and built-in stairs, according to the Air Force Volume II Budget Justification released as part of the Defense Department’s 2017 budget submission..
The cost is expected to run to $3.2 billion, including nearly $2 billion for research and development. Boeing has a $170 million contract to do research.
Tim Johnson contributed to this report.