Congress balks on new jet purchase

 - August 26, 2009, 7:53 AM

Within days after it became public last month that Congress was seeking to purchase additional business jets for use by senior government officials, House leaders dropped the $550 million request from the Defense Department’s budget.

The plan was scuttled after strong criticisms began rolling in from the Pentagon, U.S. senators, other House leaders and the media, which reminded the public how lawmakers had first excoriated the heads of the Big Three automakers for flying separate corporate jets to Washington to testify at hearings regarding the auto bailouts late last year, and then taken a wider anti-bizav stance in general.

But NBAA viewed the congressional retreat as another swipe at business aviation. In an opinion piece submitted to The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, association president and CEO Ed Bolen said the flap over the House’s proposed acquisition of more Gulfstreams predictably cast business airplanes as an excessive alternative to airline travel.

“That’s a shame, because the reality is that public and private organizations of all shapes and sizes face a multitude of transportation challenges,” he wrote. “The most appropriate way to address these challenges depends on the situation. And often the situation necessitates the use of a business airplane.”

Bolen cited the 24-hour trip to North Korea by former President Clinton on a business jet to secure the release and return to the U.S. of two imprisoned journalists. “But aside from this mission, there are many other situations when it makes sense to use a business airplane rather than a scheduled airline,” he said.

The DOD had asked Congress for funds to purchase four airplanes–a Gulfstream G550 and one new business-class equivalent of the Boeing 737, as well as two 737s that were already being leased by government officials. The total cost would be $220 million.

No Replacement Jets

Before leaving for its August recess, however, the House approved funds to buy a total of eight airplanes, boosting the number of Gulfstream G550s to three and the number of military versions of the 737 to five, for a total cost of $550 million. The increase in purchases was included in the $636 billion bill to fund the DOD for Fiscal Year 2010. It was approved 400 to 30.

House members who favored the increased order argued that the additional jets were needed as replacements for aging aircraft and would be less expensive to operate. But once the move came out in the open, the Pentagon disavowed any need for extra aircraft, two of which were to be stationed at Andrews AFB.

That gave Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, which had sought the extra airplanes, the opportunity to back-peddle. “If the Department of Defense does not want these aircraft, they will be eliminated from the bill,” he said.

And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who has sparred with the Air Force over availability of airplanes for congressional delegations and for herself, joined in Murtha’s surrender.

Andrews is home to the Air Force’s 89th Airlift Wing, which operates the Presidential Air Force One fleet of two Boeing 747s, five GIIIs, four Boeing 757s, five GVs and two 737s.