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At a White House forum on fiscal responsibility on Feb. 23, Sen. John McCain complained to President Obama that cost overruns have dramatically increased the price tag for new presidential helicopters.
"Just one area that I wanted to mention that I think consumed a lot of our conversation on procurement was the issue of cost overruns in the Defense Department," McCain said at the forum. "We all know how large the defense budget is. We all know that the cost overruns — your helicopter is now going to cost as much as Air Force One. I don't think that there's any more graphic demonstration of how good ideas have cost taxpayers an enormous amount of money."
We wondered if it was true that the Marine One presidential helicopter that carries 14 passengers could cost as much as the huge version of the Boeing 747 that is specially built for the president.
The Air Force One cost comparison has been frequently cited by critics of the helicopter contract, which has nearly doubled in cost since Lockheed Martin won it in 2005. The original estimate was $6.1 billion for 28 helicopters, but it is now estimated at $11.2 billion. That works out to $400 million each.
The two planes known as Air Force One, specially built Boeing 747 jets, were paid for in the late 1980s and delivered in 1990. We found a variety of price estimates for them. Several sources, including the book Air Force One: A History of the Presidents and Their Planes by Kenneth T. Walsh, mention an overall cost of about $330 million per plane (in 1990 dollars).
If that number is used for the comparison and adjusted to current dollars — about $517 million — then McCain is wrong because the plane costs more.
But taxpayers actually paid only $200 million per plane (about $315 million in current dolllars), according to an Air Force spokesman. Boeing had a fixed price contract with the Air Force and had to absorb the cost overruns. So under that figure ($315 million for the plane vs. $400 million for the copter), McCain is close. In fact, he could have said the helicopter would cost more.
So this one boils down to a question of what you consider to be the "cost" of Air Force One. It cost $550 million in current dollars to build , but the government paid just $315 million.
We think most people would judge it on the cost that taxpayers paid, since that's the comparison being made with the helicopter contract (which is not a fixed price contract), but McCain could have been clearer if he had specified that. So we find his statement Mostly True.
Washington Post, Cost Nearly Doubles for Marine One Fleet, March 17, 2008
Congressional Quarterly, Lawmakers blanch at helicopters rising cost, Feb. 13, 2009
New York Times, Obama Confronts a Choice on Copters, Feb. 15, 2009
Kenneth T. Walsh, Air Force One: A History of the Presidents and Their Planes, Hyperion, 2003
Interview, Air Force Spokesman Lt. Col. Tadd Sholtis
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