The campaign plane is a noteworthy backdrop to any presidential campaign. But Joe Biden is breaking with this longstanding tradition and will not be using a private jet for his presidential push. He will be the first presidential contender in generations not to do so.
Joe Biden breaks the mold with campaign jets
Despite been nicknamed “Amtrak Joe” because he supports long-distance rail, Mr Biden is a regular user of private jets. In the third quarter of 2019, Mr Biden’s campaign spent US$924,000 using jets provided by Virginia-based Advanced Aviation. The charter business has a fleet of long-range VIP aircraft that can seat 50 – 100 passengers in first class comfort.
But it seems Mr Biden is now leaving the private jets behind. Ostensibly, it is because of health concerns surrounding large gatherings. But it is also about saving money and contrasting with the incumbent President.
Campaign planes, usually private charter jets, are a staple of presidential campaigns. As campaigners barnstorm across the United States, private jets allow a degree of flexibility and convenience that commercial travel cannot match.
It doesn’t hurt that these planes are usually extremely comfortable to travel in and make great backdrops for media. Indeed, from an aviation fan point of view, there’s a lot of interest in the type of planes presidential contenders use.
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The incumbent President keeps on flying
While the incumbent President enjoys Air Force One, he said no to the traditional campaign plane in the run-up to the 2016 election. Donald Trump preferred to campaign in his own Boeing 757-200. This type of plane usually carries up to 200 passengers, but Mr Trump’s plane carries just 43 passengers.
“It’s bigger than Air Force One, which is a step down from this in every way,” Mr Trump told Rolling Stone magazine during his previous campaign.
Since then, the President has learned to like the USAF offerings. As Mr Biden puts the brakes on his use of private jets, Mr Trump was flying around the mid-west on a USAF Boeing C-32 – a modified 757.
A long history of president contenders using private jets
Given Mr Biden’s professed advocacy for long-distance rail, it is ironic that private jet use in presidential campaigns largely coincided with the decline of rail transport. You can trace the rise of private jet use in presidential campaigns back over half a century or more.
Dwight Eisenhower was President of the United States between 1953 and 1961. When he was first campaigning, he flew around on a VC-121 called Columbine II. Twenty-five years later, Jimmy Carter leased a Boeing 727 from United Airlines when he was campaigning.
More recently, Barack Obama barnstormed across the United States in a Boeing 757 when campaigning for President in 2008. But that wasn’t a hard and fast rule. He and his team were on board a chartered Midwest MD-80 in 2008. It had to make an unscheduled landing in St Louis, Missouri, after the pilot experienced “controllability of the pitch” issues.
Eight years later, while Mr Trump was darting around the country in his 757, his then opponent, Hillary Clinton, used a Boeing 737-800 during her campaign.
Joe Biden’s step back from private jet use might save him money and may be better for the environment. But in doing so, Mr Biden creates a gap in a long-running line of presidential contenders and their campaign iconography. It also adds a footnote to the rather fascinating history surrounding the use of private jets in presidential campaign.