“The [old] units were based on the technology at the time and designed for short-term food storage,” Stefanek said. “Although serviced on a regular basis, reliability has decreased with failures increasing, especially in hot/humid environments. The units are unable to effectively support mission requirements for food storage.”
The new refrigerator units will have nearly 70 cubic feet of storage space, she said.
The $24 million will also cover the cost of testing and certification by the Federal Aviation Administration, according to the contract. Work related to the upgrade will be carried out in Oklahoma City, San Antonio and other cities, and the work is expected to be done by the end of October 2019, the contract stated.
Stefanek said the Air Force was not able to answer additional questions Saturday morning, including whether the upgrades would be performed on only one or both of the identical Boeing VC-25 planes that serve as Air Force One. It’s also unclear whether the Air Force considered other, less expensive alternatives to replacing the two chiller units in question, or whether the replacement would take the plane — or planes — out of commission for an extended period of time.
The high-cost upgrade was first reported by Defense One, which detailed the unique needs of the presidential aircraft — the plane reportedly needs refrigerated storage space for about 3,000 meals — as well as the White House’s and Air Force’s strict requirements for “bespoke equipment” when it comes to Air Force One.
“It’s not a contractor issue; it is a requirements issue,” Richard Aboulafia, a vice president at the Teal Group consulting firm, told the defense and national security news site. “It’s not getting people rich.”
However, Eric Schultz, a former senior adviser to Barack Obama, reacted to the news by tweeting that “we would have been impeached” if the previous administration had carried out such an upgrade to Air Force One.
Schultz declined an interview request Saturday morning.
Air Force One has two galleys where up to 100 meals can be prepared at a time, according to ABC News. An ABC slide show captured an array of “incredible” dishes that have been served on board, from beef tenderloin and lasagna to kebabs and tiramisu. (The president can request pretty much anything, CBS News once reported, with a caveat that Air Force One french fries tend to be “a bit soggy” because of the lack of a fryer on the plane.)
“During international trips, chillers in the belly of Air Force One keep food for daily meals fresh,” ABC News reported. “The crew never procures food overseas to serve on the plane as a safety precaution.”
In 2015, the Air Force announced that two new Boeing 747-8 aircraft would be used in the presidential fleet, replacing the current plane. But Trump, while campaigning for the presidency, criticized the planned purchase for its $4 billion price tag. He even suggested that his personal private aircraft was better and that Air Force One would be a step down for him.
Even after winning the election, Trump pushed back against the expense, tweeting that the United States should cancel an order for a new presidential 747 because “costs are out of control.”
A subsequent fact check by The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler highlighted some of the inaccuracies in Trump’s tweet. But he continued to make the claim.
“I refuse to fly in a $4.2 billion airplane,” Trump told a crowd last February in Florida. “I refuse.” But at the rally, he also claimed to have negotiated the deal down with Boeing, reducing the cost by $1 billion. (Air Force officials would later say they did not know of any such negotiations or savings.)
Still, it only took a few days in office and a trip on the plane for Trump to change his opinion of Air Force One.
“Beautiful, a great plane,” Trump told reporters on board Air Force One after his first trip. “Terrific.”