Presidential travel, China style | Don Brunell

When China’s President Xi Jinping flew into Seattle last September, his presidential airliner looked like any other Air China 747-400 passenger jet. That is because it was.

The Chinese have a different approach to flying their leaders. Its Air Force owns a small fleet of 737s to shuttle dignitaries on short hauls, but they contract with independently owned Air China for extended overseas missions.

In the United States, our government leaders exclusively fly military aircraft—-many of which made by Boeing in Washington State—-but those jets are not designed for commercial service.

China’s approach is not new. It has been retrofitting 747s to fly their presidents for 30 years, dating back to when Air China was one of six airlines the government privatized. Air China’s stock now trades on the London, Hong Kong and Shanghai exchanges.

Today, when a presidential mission is scheduled, one of Air China’s 747-400s is taken out of commercial service roughly 20 days in advance to undergo modifications, security checks and safety inspections. The modifications are made by China’s Air Force technicians.

The changes are not complicated. The front of the aircraft is modified to provide a space for the leaders to work and rest while the other sections are altered to carry ministerial-level officials, security personnel and medical staff.

Interestingly, China’s presidents fly on newer Boeing aircraft than ours. America’s current two 747s, dubbed Air Force One when the President is aboard, are 747-200s which were put into service 25 years ago.

They continue to be modified with the latest technology so safety and security risks are greatly minimized; however, the Air Force One replacements will be 747-8s which fly faster and farther. New technology is being designed into the aircraft’s hull allowing the plane to withstand a nuclear explosion and evade heat-seeking missiles.

The good news is those 747s are still assembled at Paine Field. Air China already has taken delivery of seven new Boeing 747-8s. Soon its president will fly Boeing’s newest jumbo jet.

China also looks at presidential travel costs differently. According to the Chinese American Forum magazine, Lu Peixin, former chief of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s protocol department, said: “Unlike the presidential airplane in the United States, whose interior decoration is luxury hotel style, Chinese leaders’ special plane retrofitting work is oriented around cost savings.”

A key cost factor is Chinese official’s figure that each day one of Air China’s 747 is idle it costs them $40,000, so they want them modified and returned to commercial services as quick as possible. The Chinese say their policy revolves around safety because idle planes are more prone to potential hazards and glitches.

While American presidential jets are seldom on the ground, they are expensive to operate. For example, when President Obama and his family flew to Honolulu for their Christmas vacation in 2012, the total flight expenditure was nearly $4.1 million.

The Congressional Research Service now estimates it cost $228,000 per hour to fly Air Force One. That doesn’t include the costs for security, cargo aircraft, marine helicopters and special vehicles which accompany presidential trips.

In May 2014, the President logged his 1,000th flight on Air Force One and may surpass President George W. Bush’s 1,675 flights logged during his eight years in office.

While we are unlikely to contract out presidential air travel as China does, we should look at ways to reduce costs. One key change would be to put our presidents on a budget for discretionary vacation and political travel.

Taxpayers pay for presidential vacations and in a day when we have a national debt approaching $19 trillion, we should adopt the Chinese philosophy of frugality.