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Air Force kept buying $1,280 coffee cups, but could have fixed handles for 50 cents

A Travis Air Force Base airman holds a hot cup, which is easily broken and costs more than $1,000 to replace. The base said it’s working on developing a more affordable replacement for the fragile handles.
A Travis Air Force Base airman holds a hot cup, which is easily broken and costs more than $1,000 to replace. The base said it’s working on developing a more affordable replacement for the fragile handles. U.S. Air Force

Earlier this month, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa asked the head of the Air Force why the branch she oversees reportedly spent $56,000 since 2016 to replace hot cups — which heat coffee or tea for airmen in-flight — at Travis Air Force Base in California.

Grassley pointed to a Fox News story reporting that handles on cups used by the 60th Aerial Port Squadron at Travis were easily breakable, and that when the handles break the entire expensive cup has to be repurchased because there aren’t spare parts.

“What cheaper alternatives for providing hot coffee to crew have been explored by the Air Force?” Grassley asked Air Force Secretary Health Wilson in the Oct. 2 letter.

Grassley also asked how many cups had been purchased in total, and why the hot cups’ price skyrocketed from $693 each in 2016 to $1,280 this year.

Grassley now has some answers: Wilson wrote in an Oct. 17 response that the Air Force has spent far more more than $56,000 — paying $326,785 since 2016 — to replace 391 hot cups across the military branch. Wilson said those water heaters are found “across the Air Force cargo fleet, including 59 KC-10, 52 C-5, and 222 C-17 aircraft.”

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Wilson explained the eye-popping price tag by noting that “suppliers have either stopped producing certain parts or have gone out of business.”

But Wilson conceded that “it is simply irresponsible to spend thousands of dollars on manufactured parts when we have the technology available to produce them ourselves.”

Wilson also said she created the Air Force Rapid Sustainment Office just a few months ago to more cheaply reproduce parts like the fragile hot cup handles. That initiative “recently demonstrated capability to 3-D print replacement handles for this item at a cost of about fifty cents each,” she said.

Grassley thanked Wilson for getting back to him quickly about the costly cups.

Still, Grassley said in a statement that Wilson’s response “leaves me with more questions.”

Among those questions is why the Air Force wasn’t able to find a more affordable hot cup alternative, Grassley said.

For her part, Wilson said she’s hopeful about using new technologies to drive down costs.

“There are opportunities to get better value for taxpayer dollars and we trust that our innovative Airmen will deliver,” Wilson said.

Some think that the Air Force might think about ditching coffee altogether.

kc-10.JPG
A KC-10 Extender from Travis Air Force Base in California takes off on a mission in England. It’s a tanker and cargo aircraft that refuels other aircraft mid-flight, and it’s one of the military planes that has costly and easily broken hot cups used for coffee and tea, according to the Air Force. A1C MEGHAN GEIS U.S. Air Force

“It’s always important to think about the problem that any piece of equipment is intended to solve,” said Dan Grazier, of the government watchdog Project On Government Oversight, according to Fox. “If this cup is only meant to heat water for coffee or tea, then its purpose is to aid in the crew’s alertness by providing caffeine. The exact same effect can be achieved with a few cans of Red Bull which would be far less expensive.”

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base on Sunday, October 7, 2018, as seen in this view from Pismo Beach. The booster of the rocket made a return landing at the base for the first time.

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