WASHINGTON—With oil prices hitting record levels, the United States Air Force announced today that it has begun selling passenger tickets on all flights operated by its Air Force One fleet in order to maintain the service as a "feasible enterprise."
"It no longer makes sense financially to let one passenger dictate when and where we travel," acting Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley said in a press conference at the Pentagon, the Air Force's corporate headquarters in Arlington, VA. "We've got a big plane here, and there's no reason we shouldn't be filling it."
Air Force One has been in operation since 1943. Like other "legacy carriers," it had trouble remaining solvent following industry deregulation in 1978, but the service was able to stay afloat thanks to increased summit travel to the Middle East through the early 1980s. Now, however, as costs continue to skyrocket, Air Force One has been forced to make changes to survive in the current economic climate.
"We've made some major changes to Air Force One in order to reflect our new emphasis on customer service," said Air Force chief of staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley. "On each aircraft, the conference room, office, workout room, bedroom, and war room have been gutted and replaced with narrow rows and plush seats to accommodate additional passengers. Our former private chef service has been replaced by carts of drinks and economically priced prepackaged snacks. Even the escape hatch, originally designed for sneaking away from Kazakh hijackers but never used, has been converted into luggage storage."
As a final cost-cutting measure, Moseley added, legroom was reduced by approximately 3,400 square feet.
In addition to retooling the interior, the Air Force has also instituted new fees to stay competitive and cut costs. Passengers bringing extra luggage items on board, such as fishing gear or a Scottish terrier, will be subject to a fee of $25. Nonalcoholic beer, the most popular beverage on Air Force One for most of the past decade, is no longer free, but sold at $3 a bottle. Customers, however, can now choose to pay $98 a year to skip the hassle of going through the security measures required on standard carriers.
The struggling airline sold its first passenger seats for a trial flight last month from Washington to Ottawa.
Although the flight typically lasts no more than two hours, to ensure a full aircraft, additional stops were scheduled in Louisville, Kansas City, Omaha, Des Moines, Chicago, Lansing, Detroit, a top-secret international conference in Kuwait, and Toronto. Further delays ensued when high air-traffic congestion slowed scheduled departures from Omaha and Toronto, and security measures—implemented by the Secret Service due to a last-minute CIA intelligence brief—resulted in an Indianapolis stop being canceled altogether. The airplane finally landed in Ottawa 27 hours after departing Washington.
Passengers thus far have had mixed reactions to flying with Air Force One. "It was pretty much what you'd expect from any airline, though we had to stop over in Kyoto, Japan for some reason," said Liz Silvius, 44, of McLean, VA, who was traveling with her family on a trip to Orlando. "And the in-flight movie was a State Department briefing on the North Korean nuclear threat. Not to mention that the guy sitting behind me wouldn't shut up about all the brush he cleared at his ranch."
One Washington resident and Air Force One frequent flyer, however, was unhappy. The 62-year-old government employee, who neglected to give his name, said he has used the airline for all his business trips since 2001 and "never had a problem before," but was surprised by the changes made under the new system. After 14 stops, he said, the Boeing 747 finally arrived at his destination city, where friends had been waiting seven hours to pick him up for the treaty signing they were attending.
"I've flown with [Air Force One] for a long time, but next time I may have to go on the Internet and see what else is out there," he said. "The government really needs to step in and do something about the fuel crisis in this country before it really gets out of hand."
Sources report that the Air Force considered selling passenger tickets on Air Force Two as well, but Vice President Cheney decided it was unnecessary.