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.

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.

More in Business

Keep the holiday spirit all year long | Don Brunell

During the holidays, our thoughts naturally turn to giving — not just giving gifts, but donating our time and money to charities, disasters and community programs.

Remember 1993

Twenty-five years ago, business took a beating in Olympia. The swing to the left in the 1992 general election was swift and potent. It drove higher costs to employers and more government regulations.

Remembering Ed Carlson, Vietnam POW

Since last Veteran’s Day, Ken Burns’ in-depth documentary on the Vietnam War has aired. It is a powerful reminder of an unpopular war in which many “baby boomers” fought and died.

Rural prosperity essential to Washington

While Seattle is growing rapidly, our rural areas continue to struggle. They don’t have the corporate giants such as Amazon, Microsoft and Boeing creating jobs and economic opportunities. Farms are predominantly family-owned.

Amazon’s plan reminiscent Boeing’s Chicago move

Last year, Seattle Times aerospace reporter Dominic Gates wrote about the similarities and differences between Boeing’s corporate office move to Chicago and Amazon’s plan for a second headquarters.

LiveLocal98022 meeting cancelled

Bob Green, the night’s speaker, notified the organization he couldn’t attend due to an illness.

Expanded Panama Canal among challenges for Washington Ports

The $5.4 billion spent to expand the Panama Canal is paying off for East Coast and Gulf of Mexico seaports; however, it is putting more pressure on the Northwest to remain competitive.

Players taking a knee hurting the NFL | Don Brunell

On a recent Saturday afternoon in Portland, a young woman stepped onto the playing field at the beginning of the University of Montana vs Portland State football game and started singing our national anthem. She immediately drew a blank on the words and briefly stopped, but as she started apologizing, the fans spontaneously took up the singing.

New metal collecting machine may clean up contaminated waters

There is a new machine being tested in Montana which could decontaminate toxic mine tailings while recovering valuable precious minerals for everyday use.

Workshop will focus on business, social media

All are invited to learn how social media can impact business and how it can be used to create a positive experience for customers.

Impact of Hirst decision must be address

In Washington, the legislative stalemate over permitting new household wells and the state’s construction budget has not only delayed needed funding for public projects, but triggered yet another salvo in the wider conflict over future supplies of fresh water for people, fish and farms.

Mitigate massive wildfire danger | Don Brunell

At last count firefighters were battling 82 major wildfires in 10 western states. The fires have already scorched 2,300 square miles of forests and range lands, dislocated thousands of people, and burned hundreds of homes and buildings.