The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Air Force One is a heck of an expensive perk — for taxpayers

Hillary Clinton with President Obama board Air Force One to fly to North Carolina for a rally. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
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Flying from New York to Mumbai in Etihad Airways' three-room suite (which comes with its own butler) will run you about $38,000 for the 21-hour journey. That's about $1,800 an hour -- only about 71 times what the average American earns as an hourly wage.

That's not the priciest flight in the world, though. That honor may belong to a trip on the luxury Boeing 747-200B that includes a bedroom, kitchen, office and plenty of seating for friends, family, dignitaries, reporters and Cabinet secretaries. Because we are talking about Air Force One. Trips on the president's plane cost about $200,000 an hour, according to CNN, although the primary passenger gets his rides comped.

What about everyone else? When it was announced over the weekend that President Obama would be campaigning with Hillary Clinton in North Carolina on Tuesday, Donald Trump quickly questioned who was footing the bill. "Why is President Obama allowed to use Air Force One on the campaign trail with Crooked Hillary?" he tweeted. "She is flying with him tomorrow. Who pays?"

The answer is: Clinton -- but mostly you. Clinton's campaign told Fox News that it would "cover its portion of the costs," as is "standard practice." That's true, but that portion still leaves Obama's normal expense-payers making up most of the cost.

Perhaps the most obvious case of a presidential campaign using Air Force One for campaign appearances is when a president is running for reelection. In 2012, the New York Times looked at Obama's use of Air Force One for his campaign. As then-White House spokesman Jay Carney put it, "The president is the president 24 hours a day and seven days a week, and he has to fly on Air Force One. He has to have security and communication. There are elements of his job that are always with him." Fair enough: Obama can no more just fly on a campaign charter plane than he can defer to local law enforcement to run security at his events.

But Obama's 2012 flights were pricier than the previous president's: In 2004, President George W. Bush's reelection campaign reimbursed the government a little under $1 million for trips on his presidential aircraft (identified as "White House Airlift Operations") over the course of his campaign. (The columns on the graphs below are daily expenditures; the filled-in area is cumulative spending.)

Eight years later, Obama's spent over $3 million ("Travel Offset Account").

The Times noted that the increased cost for Obama was thanks to a 2010 change in how reimbursements for travel on Air Force One should be done. "Instead of repaying the government based on the cost of first-class commercial airfare, as presidents had since Jimmy Carter defeated Gerald R. Ford," the Times's Jackie Calmes wrote, "reimbursements must now reflect the cost of chartering a 737 aircraft." Chartering a 747 through PrivateFly will cost you $21,038 an hour -- a bit less than the average line item for air travel that Obama's 2012 campaign paid, $23,050. Chartering a 737 is cheaper, at a little over $11,000 an hour.

Those figures suggests that Clinton's campaign will probably end up paying less than a tenth of the cost of Obama's trip to Charlotte. Had she been running prior to 2010, the flight would have cost her a few hundred dollars instead.

Trump's complaint isn't a new one. Presidents are often criticized for leveraging the pomp and ceremony of their positions on behalf of their preferred candidates for office. And presidents often blur the line between a presidential and a campaign visit. The Times notes that in 1982, former president Ronald Reagan made an official trip -- that is, one that wouldn't need to be reimbursed by a campaign -- to Ohio. At a rally there, Reagan joked about finessing the rules.

"This is a bipartisan meeting, so I'm not going to tell you how proud I am of Congressman Bud Brown and what an invaluable ally he's been in the fight against big government in Washington," Reagan said. "And I'm certainly not going to tell you how he's won the respect of virtually everyone he's dealt with there, or of my confidence that he'll do a great job in any position the people of Ohio elect him to."

It's not clear how Trump may have reacted to that bit of wordplay 34 years ago, if he knew about it. But it's clear how he'd react if Obama made a similar argument today.