Grassley Grinds Air Force Over $1200 Coffee Cups

Last summer we called attention to the Air Force’s $1200 cup of coffee  — or more precisely the $1220 coffee cup which keeps breaking, after which the military simply buys more and more cups. At the time the outrageously expensive coffee cup made headlines as yet another example of government waste and abuse, especially because the public has had to foot the bill to the tune hundreds of thousands of dollars in less than three years just to replace the cups merely due to its faulty plastic handle. 

But one Congressional deficit hawk is not letting the issue go. Military Times reports of Sen. Chuck Grassley’s continuing push for answers

The Iowa Republican is not satisfied with the service’s reasoning for why it chose to spend tens of thousands of dollars over the last three years on hot cups that can reheat beverages on refueling tankers and cargo aircraft, he said this month in a released statement.

Grassley questioned Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson earlier this month on the matter, but said Wilson’s response “raises more questions than answers.”

The Air Force’s $1,220 reheating coffee cup. Image source: US Air Force

Sen. Grassley indicated in an October 19 report that “The response from the Air Force indicates that $326,785 has been spent on these hot cups by the Air Force since 2016.” The Air Force said it obtained nearly 400 cups for that massive figure. Simply put, each time a flight crew member drops the cup, its fragile handle breaks, and the whole cup is promptly replaced. 

If it sounds too absurd to be true, a prior Air Force Times report explained the following background:

When a mobility airman drops a cup of coffee aboard an aircraft, the Air Force can be out $1,220.

Since 2016, the replacement cost for some of the service’s coffee mugs, which can reheat coffee and tea on air refueling tankers, has gone up more than $500 per cup, forcing the service to dish out $32,000 this year for just 25 cups, recently reported.

What’s more is that it’s only a minor and cheapest part of the mug that is faulty, yet each time the Air Force simply replaces the entire thing: 

The 60th Aerial Port Squadron at Travis Air Force Base recently revealed that it has spent nearly $56,000 to replace broken hot cups over the past three years. The culprit, they say, is a faulty plastic handle known to break on impact. Each time a handle breaks, the Air Force is forced to order a whole new cup, as replacement parts are no longer made.

So adding to the absurdity of the story is the fact that a mere “faulty plastic handle” is causing the Air Force to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars just so flight crew can keep their Folgers warm at all times. Military officials have since said the Air Force is working with engineers to create a 3-D printable handle replacement in order to fix the problem, which hasn’t been fully developed or implemented yet. 

An insanely expensive self-heating cup in question on a counter inside a KC-10 Extender at Travis Air Force Base, California. Image source: US Air Force

The cups have to withstand use in pressurized areas on aircraft such as cargo planes, and must endure turbulence while flying through inclement weather. Still, as Popular Mechanics concludes in what sounds like an ironic understatement, “A self-heating coffee cup is a nice morale-builder for air crews, but it comes at a price.”

“[But] it remains unclear why it cannot find a cheaper alternative to a $1,280 cup,” Grassley said further. “Government officials have the responsibility to use taxpayer dollars efficiently. Too often, that’s not the case. I intend to pursue this issue further.”

According to data from the Military Times it appears the vendor is likely driving up prices as well, knowing the Air Force has done next to nothing as far as seeking alternatives:

In July, the Air Force said that the 60th Aerial Port Squadron purchased 10 hot cups for $6,930 in 2016. The price for each cup surged from $693 to $1,280 in 2018, resulting in a cost of $32,000 for 25 cups — a price jump of $587 per cup.

Once locked into a fat government contract, the suppliers take the DoD to the bank for all they can manage, apparently.

Sen. Grassley has also recently sought answers from the DoD over its “$10,000 toilet seat covers” which was first revealed in the same Air Force Times report that revealed the expensive coffee mugs. Grassley called it along with the mugs “egregious and wasteful” spending and vowed to get to the bottom of it. 

In an explanation that must be seen to be believed, the Military Times report relates the DoD’s response to outrage over its expensive toilet seat cover replacements as follows

The service said the high prices of the toilet seat covers and the cups stemmed from a requirement for parts that were no longer routinely manufactured due to obsolescence or diminished resources. In the case of the seat covers, Lockheed Martin Corp. originally produced the part — a circa-1980s piece required to protect the aircraft from corrosion damage in the latrine area caused by urine — but ceased production in 2001.

So the piece has to be replaced to the tune of $10K because it was literally pissed on too often. However, it appears it’s the American taxpayer who’s actually getting pissed on as both the DoD and private contractors demanding the government fork over the insane fees, is in no hurry to rectify the situation. 

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