On 22 December 2017, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) posted a list of contracts that had been awarded to various businesses to support the operations of the U.S. armed forces.

One of the items in that list was a $23.6 million contract with Boeing to provide engineering and support services for “chillers”:

The Boeing Co., Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, has been awarded a $23,657,671 contract for engineering support services for VC-25A G12/G13 chillers, including prototype design, manufacture/procurement, installation, and the testing of one prototype, consisting of both Group A and Group B equipment. The Air Force requires that the current air chillers in the G12 and G13 galleys be modified with new cold food stowage to improve reliability and maintainability. Work will be performed in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; San Antonio, Texas; and various other locations, with an expected completion date of Oct. 30, 2019. This award is the result of a sole-source acquisition. Fiscal 2017 procurement funds in the amount of $23,657,671 are being obligated at the time of award. Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, is the contracting activity (FA8106-17-D-0002/FA8106-18-F-1002).

As the Defense One web site noted a month later, the purpose of that contract was for the replacement two of the five “cold chiller units” (i.e., refigerators) aboard Air Force One, the modified Boeing 747 airliner used for presidential transport.

Shortly afterwards, many national news outlets picked up on the story, reporting it under attention-grabbing headlines such as “Air Force One’s new refrigerators cost $24 million.”

But as Defense One and other sources noted, the cost of the chiller units is so high because they have unique requirements necessitated by the customized and specialized nature of the presidential airplane, including the need to store large quantities of food for extended periods of time in case of emergency or other circumstances that might prevent timely resupply:

Their high cost is the latest example of just how expensive it is to build the heavily modified 747 jumbo jets that fly the president of the United States. Experts say the reason isn’t price gouging by Boeing, which makes the jets and handles the presidential modifications, but instead the result of bespoke equipment requirements put in place by the White House Military Office and the Air Force.

The new refrigerators aren’t your kitchen Frigidaires, or even a typical jetliner’s cabin-feeding coolboxes. The requirement for Air Force One is the ability to feed passengers and crew for weeks without resupplying. That means storing about 3,000 meals in massive refrigerators and freezers below the passenger cabin. Five “chillers” cool a total of 26 climate-controlled compartments, according to the Air Force.

[Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at the Teal Group consulting firm] said the refrigerators, and many other items on the aircraft, are so expensive because they are they are unique to Air Force One and not used on commercial or business jets. Many of the contractors that work on the presidential jet also must maintain high-level security clearances.

CNN similarly noted that the chilling units had unique requirements, and the replacement of the current units was necessitated by increasing failures:

Due to the fact that Air Force One is a one-of-a-kind aircraft, many of its components require unique testing by the Federal Aviation Administration and the cost of the testing is included in the price of the component, in this case refrigerators. The $24 million contract will cover the costs of engineering support services for the new chillers — including prototype design, manufacturing and installation, according to the DOD contract.

“The units and associated aircraft structural modifications are being specially designed to provide nearly 70 cubic feet of temperature-controlled (refrigeration/freezer) storage to support on-board personnel for an extended period of time, without having to restock while abroad,” [Air Force spokesperson Ann] Stefanek told CNN.

“The current rear lower lobe cold chiller units being replaced are the original commercial equipment delivered with the aircraft in 1990. The units were based on the technology at the time and designed for short-term food storage,” [Stefanek said].

“Although serviced on a regular basis, reliability has decreased with failures increasing, especially in hot/humid environments. The units are unable to effectively support mission requirements for food storage,” she said.

Sources:

Weisgerber, Marcus.   “Air Force One Needs New Refrigerators. They Cost $24 Million.”
    Defense One.   24 January 2018.

U.S. Department of Defense.   “Contracts.”
    Release No: CR-247-17.   22 December 2017.

Cohen, Zachary and Ryan Browne.   “Air Force One’s New Refrigerators Cost $24 Million.”
    CNN.   26 January 2018.

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