The Corner

More Boeing for Your Buck

There seems to be a great deal of harrumphing at Donald Trump’s tweet about Boeing and Air Force One, but I’m struggling to figure out why.

By way of background, this morning Donald Trump tweeted: “Boeing is building a brand new 747 Air Force One for future presidents, but costs are out of control, more than $4 billion. Cancel order!”

People were initially skeptical about Trump’s numbers, but NBC explains the outlays:

According to the latest figures, Trump is likely correct about the $4 billion price tag. Research and development is already at $2.7 billion for first two years, a number that is already budgeted and approved, and the Government Accountability Office warned last year that the cost would be approximately $3.2 billion. By the time the aircraft is delivered, the total cost will likely be over $4 billion, because the government still has to buy the two aircraft once they are built.

“Air Force One is so much more expensive than commercial planes,” NBC continues, “because of the communications package and air defense measures. Boeing was the only choice for the build because it’s an American company and they have the only four-engine aircraft, a necessity due to the weight.”

In other words, it takes a lot of money to build what is effectively a flying White House.

There are, then, only two relevant questions: 1) Does it need to cost that much?, and 2) Does it need to cost that much right now?

Take the second question first. The current Air Force One consists of two 747-200s that have been in use since the George H.W. Bush administration. Given that the estimated lifespan of these planes is about three decades, the current Air Force One is surely in its senescence. And, obviously, maintenance costs will grow as the planes age.

Erick Erickson makes an interesting point, also:

Contrary to popular opinion and movies, in 2001, Air Force One did not have the technical sophistication for President Bush to maintain stable lines of communication after the 9/11 disaster. He could put in a secure call to Putin, but he could not maintain secure lines with the White House or others domestically. All of that technology had to be shoehorned into Air Force One later.

New planes built to handle the needs of a president facing a different, faster-paced geopolitical situation, and built with room for future modifications, does not seem like a bad idea.

So, if a new Air Force One is needed, the question is then: How much ought it to cost? Leaning on the Pentagon and on Boeing for the best deal possible seems hardly unreasonable. The Pentagon is not exactly known for its conscientious budget management — hundreds of billions have already been thrown at the F-35 fighter jet, with precisely nothing to show for it — or for its transparency. Just Monday it was revealed that the Defense Department classified a report identifying $125 billion in administrative waste to avoid public scrutiny. Boeing, meanwhile, already benefits handsomely from the largesse of the federal Export-Import Bank. Donald Trump cannot force Congress to alter its appropriations decisions (beyond his powers of veto and persuasion), but the federal government is the customer in this deal. If someone joins the negotiating team who thinks they can squeeze more concessions out of the seller, isn’t that just how markets work?

And, just a reminder: It’s taxpayers who are footing the bill. I’m no fan of Donald Trump’s approach to economic policy so far — inasmuch as it’s summed up by his backroom deal with Carrier — but when he said offhand today, “We want Boeing to make a lot of money, but not that money,” it’s worth remembering that the money Boeing is making, in this particular case, is ours. This isn’t Trump “picking winners and losers.” It’s your realtor saying, “I bet I can get them to knock off 10 percent.” Barack Obama did much the same thing when, in 2009, he questioned the extraordinary cost overruns in the Marine One helicopter project.

In either case, I can’t say I mind.