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Trump speaks to Boeing head on Air Force One costs

Fresh from touting a deal to save hundreds of jobs at the Carrier plant in Indiana as proof he would hold to his election pledge to protect American workers, it appears to have escaped Donald Trump that his attack on Boeing’s contract to replace Air Force One would endanger the employment of thousands of highly skilled aerospace workers.

After claiming this week that the “$4 billion” cost of a new Air Force One programme for future presidents was out of control, the US president-elect said on Wednesday that he had discussed the issue with Dennis Muilenburg, Boeing chief executive.

“We’re going to work it out,” he said, but repeated a threat to cancel. “We’re going to get the prices down and if we don’t get the prices down, we’re not going to order them.”

The White House has pointed out that the contract Mr Trump was referring to was a $170m research and development deal designed to allow Boeing and the US Air Force to work out the exact requirements for the two new versions of the presidential 747, dubbed the “Flying White House”. No order has yet been placed.

What was not said is that the timing of the original decision in January 2015 to select Boeing as the “sole source” supplier, without any competition, was in large part motivated by the need to protect skills and jobs.

The 747 revolutionised air travel when it entered service in the early 1970s and became the symbol of US global hegemony when it took over the role of Air Force One in 1991. But the jumbo jet has long since been surpassed as the long haul jet of choice, with airlines now preferring twin-engined aircraft.

The latest version of the four-engined jumbo — the 747-8 — is struggling to win orders. Boeing had halved production to six aircraft per year and in July acknowledged it may have to close the line. It received a boost in October when UPS committed to buying 14 aircraft, almost doubling the backlog to 29, but analysts said that would only defer the inevitable.

We’re going to get the prices down and if we don’t get the prices down, we’re not going to order them

Loren Thompson, an analyst at the Virginia-based Lexington Institute, said the 747 line supports thousands of jobs at Boeing and further down the supply chain. On top of that, the nature of the specialist work required on the two would-be Air Force One replacements alone would secure work for hundreds.

“If the Air Force One programme were cancelled it would hasten the demise of the 747 line, and just for those two aircraft involved in the programme it would affect more than the 800 [Carrier] jobs that were saved in Indiana,” said Mr Thompson.

The Pentagon has acknowledged that the price tag for the two jets is likely to exceed the $2.7bn in its budget, but did not comment on Mr Trump’s claim that it would reach $4bn.

Air Force One is no ordinary 747 and there is a reason the price for the two aircraft will exceed the list figure of $350m for a standard jumbo. It has a dual role serving as a VIP jet for the president and his entourage as well as an airborne military command and control centre.

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It must be capable of withstanding the effects of a pulse of electromagnetic radiation from a nuclear explosion, which would destroy unprotected electrical systems on standard commercial aircraft.

The current fleet of two ageing 747-200s carry electronic countermeasures to jam enemy radar, and flares and other decoys to confuse anti-aircraft missiles. Design work on the new aircraft is expected to recommend fitting at least one low-powered laser intended to “blind” heat-seeking missiles.

An air-to-air refuelling system allows the aircraft to remain aloft for days in the event of a nuclear strike, while a medical room can double as an airborne operating theatre. Both these would be due for an upgrade.

Many of the capabilities of Air Force One remain classified as will the features of any replacements, including the advanced secure military communication capabilities.

The first dedicated presidential transport aircraft was ordered by Dwight Eisenhower but did not enter service until November 1962 when John F Kennedy became the first US president to use a modified Boeing 707. It rose to prominence a year later when it hosted its most historic moment — the swearing in ceremony of Lyndon Johnson, following the assassination of Kennedy in Dallas.

Air Force One, which has the military designation VC-25, has featured in a host of movies, including the eponymous 1997 action film starring Harrison Ford. But in true Hollywood style some of its features have been embellished, including a non-existent escape pod.

Whether or not Mr Trump cancels the replacement, one thing is almost certain. The likelihood that he will take delivery of the new jets should he win a second term is fading fast. The scheduled in-service date is 2023 but that will almost certainly slip to later in the decade, said Mr Thompson.

Via FT