I QUESTION TIME: If Prince William Can Fly Coach, Why Can’t Obama?

Why does no one do anything about the outrageous costs of Obama’s trips aboard Air Force One? Wasn’t Air Force One originally only supposed to be flown in the continental US in the event of imminent attack? Prince William flew coach during his last stateside visit, why can’t Obama?

President Obama’s use of Air Force One for personnel trips has cost taxpayers tens of millions. While security, communications and support requirements of Presidential transport probably make it infeasible for the President of the United States to fly coach, flying a 747 for a family vacation is absurd.

Since Eisenhour, US Presidents have traveled aboard special aircraft under the callsign Air Force One. (An aside, Air Force One is the callsign for any military aircraft carrying the President, not a particular plane.) The current primary aircraft for Presidential transport that people think of as Air Force One are a pair of V-25As, specially modified Boeing 747s, designated Special Air Mission 28000 and 29000.

But, the Air Force also maintains a fleet of other smaller and cheaper to operate aircraft modified for VIP transport in the familiar blue and white livery. How about he at least take one of those when he’s on personal travel?

The C-37, a modified Gulfstream business jet, ain’t exactly slumming it. At $4,700 per hour to operate, it’s hardly cheap. But, compared to the $200,000 an hour bill for flying the VC-25As, it seems like a steal.

Obama has used the smaller jets occasionally when flying into. airports too small to accommodate the VC-25As or to make a statement about carbon footprint.

Why the President doesn’t fly coach

Because he is not a head of state, Prince William is free to fly coach. Unlike the President, he has no responsibility as Commander in Chief. Other than probably driving his security detail bonkers, flying coach isn’t a problem for Wills.

The President’s responsibility as Commander in Chief makes his travel arrangements a much more complex matter. For instance, I’d venture to guess that the communications systems that are part of the “nuclear football” might not work on a commercial jetliner. There are no secure military communications facilities in coach. Not to mention that a couple hundred random people in close proximity to the President on a plane that many uncleared people have access to would be a pretty big security risk.

The Doomsday Plane

You bring up an interesting point about emergency Presidential aircraft though. I think you’re referring to a different program, the National Emergency Airborne Command Post, or Project Nightwatch. That’s always been a separate animal from Presidential Airlift Group, which operates the VC-25s we think of as Air Force One.

Project Nightwatch operates several E-4Bs, also modified 747s in a blue and white livery that bears a glancing resemblance to the VC-25A “Air Force One.” But, that’s where the similarity ends.

The E-4B nicknamed the “Doomsday Plane,” which went into service in 1974, is designed as an airborne command post with unique capabilities to provide the national command authority, including the President and Joint Chiefs, continuity of operations in the event of a catastrophic attack.

They are hardened against electromagnetic pulse from a nuclear attack and have special communications systems that interface with the national emergency command and control triad, a safeguard against a decapitation strike.

There have been attempts to end the E-4b program. The VC-25As have some of the same capabilities. However, the Air Force maintains that their unique capabilities are not replicated by any other aircraft. To this day, there is always an E-4b at ready out at Ofitt Air Force Base. An E-4b usually accompanies the President on overseas trips and is kept stationed nearby in case of a national emergency and as a backup should the VC-25A be disabled. E-4Bs are also occasionally dispatched for use by FEMA to transport staff and serve as temporary command centers during national disasters. Still, there’s a valid argument that Nightwatch is a Cold War relic that has outlived its usefulness.

There are dozens of reasons having nothing to do with his comfort that make it impractical for Presidents to fly commercial. That doesn’t mean he needs to take a 747 everywhere. There are cheaper ways to move the President around. With debt piling up, the President should lead by example. If he won’t, it might be time for Congress to make him.

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