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Originally published Sunday, January 18, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Airbus could build next Air Force One; 747 due to be replaced

For nearly two decades, Boeing's 747 jumbo jet has served as the president's flying White House, projecting America's might wherever it landed.

Los Angeles Times

For nearly two decades, Boeing's 747 jumbo jet has served as the president's flying White House, projecting America's might wherever it landed.

But in the next decade, "United States of America" could end up being emblazoned on an even bigger plane that has been a symbol of European unity and pride.

The 747 Air Force One is scheduled to be replaced, and the new plane is likely to be stuffed with top-secret gee-whiz gadgetry, including countermeasures to thwart missile attacks, and aerial-refueling capabilities so it can fly for days without landing.

That's on top of comforts likely to make even the world's richest jet setters envious, including a medical facility and lavish staterooms with showers.

What it will not have is a presidential escape pod, analysts said, a feature that became an urban legend, thanks to a 1997 action film that starred Harrison Ford.

2016 is target date

It is unlikely that President-elect Obama will get a chance to fly in a new Air Force One because the replacement isn't scheduled to begin flying until 2016 at the earliest. It takes up to three years just to modify the plane so it can withstand attacks and enable the president to command from the sky.

But for the first time, the Pentagon has raised the prospect that the replacement for the most photographed and most advanced passenger jet in the world could come from a firm overseas.

In a move certain to raise the political ire of the "buy American" crowd in Congress, the Air Force has requested information from aircraft makers, including Airbus, of Europe, to replace the aging 747 jet. Boeing, headquartered in Chicago, has built presidential jets since the early 1960s.

"I just can't see how they could allow that to happen," John Pike, director of the military policy Web site GlobalSecurity.org, said about congressional reaction to an Airbus plane. "The American president getting off of an American plane has been a major part of U.S. being a superpower."

An Airbus plane is not as far-fetched as some would think, analysts said.

The Pentagon's request for information made quietly last week set in motion an open-ended contest. Airbus and Boeing are the only two companies capable of building an aircraft as sophisticated as that required by the leader of the world's largest economy. Last year, the double-decked Airbus A380 unseated the 747 as the world's largest passenger plane.

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"The level of security and the amount of foreign participation in this requirement has not been determined," the official request for information said. The Air Force has not ruled out buying from a foreign firm.

Foreign barriers collapse

It wouldn't be the first time. Barriers against foreign competition collapsed several years ago when the Pentagon selected a consortium of U.S., Italian and British companies to build replacements for the president's Marine One helicopter fleet.

And last year, the Air Force chose a team of Northrop Grumman and Airbus to build aerial-refueling tankers, although that was later overturned after a protest from Boeing on procedural grounds. A similar partnership could bid for the Air Force One contract, analysts said.

"At first it sounds inconceivable, but then again, so did the presidential-helicopter selection," said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst for aerospace-research firm Teal Group. "If politics was completely removed, the Air Force may decide they need all the space they can get" from the A380, which has about 40 percent more interior space than the 747.

Boeing said it has no intention of losing its grip on building presidential jets. A Boeing official said it was too early to say what kind of plane it would propose as a replacement, although analysts are speculating the contender could be the new and larger version of the 747 dubbed the 747-8 Intercontinental. The passenger version is expected to enter service in 2011.

More than "One"

The president has two 747 jets at his disposal, and "Air Force One" is a radio call sign for any plane that has the president on board. But the identical 747s have come to be commonly called Air Force One.

In its request for information, the Air Force said it wanted to buy three new planes, which would be cheaper than repairing and maintaining the aging 747s. The president's plane was based on an earlier 747-200 model, many of which were built in the 1970s and are no longer in service, reducing the availability of spare parts.

The potential cost of the plane is classified, but passenger versions of the A380 cost up to $350 million, while the price tag for a new 747-8 is about $300 million.

Whichever is chosen, the new plane is likely to be outfitted with the most advanced electronics, weapons and communication systems. It will have enough electronics on board to enable the president to command major military operations from the sky.

"From a purely symbolic point of view, it would be really tough to buy a European-designed aircraft," said Loren Thompson, defense-policy analyst for the Lexington Institute. "It would be like the president arriving in a BMW limousine."

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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