Just the Facts

Five Facts on How High-Ranking Federal Government Officials Travel

By Emma Petasis
January 22, 2019 | Blog

Last week, President Trump denied Speaker Nancy Pelosi and several other members of Congress a military aircraft for a scheduled trip to visit troops in Afghanistan. The ensuing controversy has shed light on the complicated process behind the allocation of military jets for government travel. Here are five facts on how high-ranking federal government officials travel.

Presidents conduct all their air travel on highly specialized planes or helicopters dubbed Air Force One and Marine One, respectively.

Neither Air Force One nor Marine One refers to a specific aircraft, but rather are the terms used to describe the plane or helicopter carrying the president. However, these monikers are reserved for a small group of specially outfitted aircraft capable of keeping the president of the United States safe.  Today, there are two highly customized Boeing 747-200B series aircraft that rotate as the presidential plane. These impressive 747s are capable of refueling mid-air, giving them unlimited range, have onboard electronics hardened to protect against electromagnetic pulse, and are equipped with secure communications equipment, allowing the president to stay in touch with top officials at all times. Similarly, Marine One, a specialized Sikorsky VH-3D Seat King, sports impressive features such as ballistic armor, missile warning systems, antimissile defenses, and a secure communications line.

The vice president most commonly flies in a specialized C-32A military plane, the commercial equivalent of a Boeing 757.

Predictably, any plane carrying the vice president is assigned the call sign “Air Force Two.” This aircraft, while about half the size of the presidential 747, is equipped with many of the same features. It has advanced security and communications equipment, as well as a medical space capable of facilitating surgery. In addition, it has food galleys that can feed more than 100 people and 4,000 square feet of floor space spread out over three levels. In addition to the vice president, these 757s can also be used to carry high-ranking cabinet officials, such as the secretaries of State and Defense.

The 89th Airlift Wing is responsible for running the military executive flight department that oversees the travel of America’s highest-ranking officials.

The 89th Airlift Wing is in charge of ensuring that the president, vice president, Cabinet officials, and members of Congress are able to safely carry out their official duties around the world. The unit is based at Andrews Air Force Base and oversees the operation and maintenance of the two presidential Boeing 747s, four 757s, two 737s, four Gulf Stream Vs, and five Gulf Stream IIIs. The fleet carries out more than 6,500 missions every year, logging more than 12,000 flight hours. In addition, it employs 80 of the Air Force’s most seasoned pilots and 89 flight attendants hand picked to serve America’s highest-ranking officials.

Following 9/11, the speaker of the House was given the right to use military planes to travel for security reasons.

Due to the speaker’s status as second in line to the presidency, Congress afforded those serving in this office access to the 89th Airlift Wing’s fleet. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, the first speaker to use military planes for travel, used the fleet’s Gulf Stream III jets to transport him back home to Illinois. When Nancy Pelosi took over as speaker in 2007, she required a slightly larger jet, as the Gulf Stream III could be forced to stop and refuel if it faced strong headwinds on the cross-country journey to her home district in California. However, when John Boehner took over as speaker in 2011, he elected not to use the private jet, a tradition that Speaker Paul Ryan continued.

The allocation of military planes is at the discretion of the White House Military Office and, ultimately, the president.

As there are a significant number of potential travelers and only a small number of designated planes at any given time, there is a strict protocol for how the planes in the 89th Airlift Wing are allocated. Cabinet members will generally apply directly to the White House chief of staff, who will either accept or deny the request. Members of Congress generally apply to the assistant secretary of Defense for Legislative Affairs. If approved, the request will be passed along to the Office of the Assistant Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Special Air Missions Division, which is in charge of matching the request with the appropriate aircraft.

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