How do US presidents fly after they leave office?

Jan 21, 2021

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Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information.

Now that President Trump has relinquished Air Force One to the new administration, how does a man coming out of the Oval Office — and for that matter, all living past presidents — accomplish air travel?

Before the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States, former President Donald Trump, first lady Melania Trump, the couple’s son Baron and several other family members took off for Florida. After flying from the White House front lawn to Joint Base Andrews on Marine One, the Trumps boarded the Boeing 747 with callsign Air Force One for the final time.

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It’s unclear when former President Trump and Melania Trump will fly next, as the couple has said they plan to live at Mar-a-Lago in West Palm Beach, Florida.

But, when they do take to the skies for the first time post-presidency, you shouldn’t expect to find them on commercial airliners. Trump still has his own private Boeing 757 which, for much of his time in the White House, sat dormant at an airport in New York. The aircraft, which is registered as N757AF, will likely be the preferred mode of transportation for the Trump family.

When the Obama family flew for the first time without Air Force One, it was a luxe private experience. Former first lady Michelle Obama was seen boarding Sir Richard Branson’s Falcon 900EX jet in Palm Springs, California on the way to a Necker Island getaway in the British Virgin Islands. And, while the former president was not seen getting on the plane, you can rest assured he didn’t fly commercial down to the Caribbean.

The Obamas travelled in style to get to Necker Island on a recent post-presidential vacation. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Because of security details — all presidents and spouses are entitled to lifetime Secret Service protection (offspring are protected up to the age of 16) — flying commercial usually isn’t viable. Also, considering the traffic jam a president’s appearance would cause in a public airport terminal, it probably isn’t the best idea.

Former President George W. Bush has had a few private jet incidents since leaving office — one emergency landing in 2013 after smoke was reported on board, as well as a bad publicity episode after he accepted a $20,000 private jet flight and a $100,000 speaking fee in order to attend a veteran’s event.

The only former president who is the exception to the private jet trend is former President Jimmy Carter — and his wife, Roslyn — who travelled on a commercial Delta flight from Atlanta to Washington, D.C. for former President Trump’s inauguration.

Travel for former presidents and no more than two of their designated staff is actually covered by taxpayer dollars, thanks to the Former President’s Act (FPA) of 1958. In 1969, the General Services Administration (GSA) took control of determining the travel costs and capped annual appropriations at $1 million per president and $500,000 per president’s spouse. In order for travel to be funded by the GSA, travel needs to be related to a function dealing with their capacity as a former president — pure leisure travel does not make the cut.

Before you get too outraged at those figures, consider this: In the fiscal year 2015, only former Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush used official travel funds, which totalled just $66,000 (about £48,000).

Former presidents who make millions of dollars in public speaking fees and book deals have received criticism for accepting benefits under the FPA, originally enacted to “maintain the dignity of the Office of the President” after former President Truman was so poor after leaving office, he had to move into his mother-in-law’s house.

If you’re flying through Atlanta in the future, be sure to keep an eye out for the Carters, who hopefully have been collecting their Delta SkyMiles. Otherwise, the only time you may catch a glimpse of former President Trump, Obama, Clinton or Bush would be as they’re coming to or from their respective private jets.

Additional reporting by Emily McNutt.

Featured photo by Go Nakamura/Getty Images.

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