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Lawmaker Chides Air Force for Buying Expensive Coffee Cups

An Airman holds a hot cup inside a KC-10 Extender at Travis Air Force Base, Calif., June 21, 2018. The base is working on developing a new handle for the cup which could save the Air Force thousands. (U.S. Air Force/Tech. Sgt. James Hodgman)
An Airman holds a hot cup inside a KC-10 Extender at Travis Air Force Base, Calif., June 21, 2018. The base is working on developing a new handle for the cup which could save the Air Force thousands. (U.S. Air Force/Tech. Sgt. James Hodgman)

While the U.S. Air Force has begun saving money by 3D printing replacement handles for the coffee cups on its mobility aircraft, one lawmaker still wants to know why it spent $1,200 per cup in the first place.

In a recent letter addressed to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, questioned why the service spent tens of thousands of dollars over the last three years on hot cups that can reheat coffee and tea on air refueling tankers.

"This latest example of reckless spending of taxpayer dollars gives me no confidence that the Air Force is taking real steps to reduce wasteful spending practices," he said in the letter. "This report also heightens my concern that the DoD Office of Inspector General is not prioritizing oversight of wasteful spending."

In July, Air Mobility Command officials said that airmen at Travis Air Force Base, California, had developed a solution to 3D print handles instead of reordering the cups, which had flimsy handles that broke often -- a big expense.

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AMC said the 60th Aerial Port Squadron purchased 10 new hot cups for $6,930 in 2016. The price for each cup surged from $693 to $1,220 in 2018, resulting in a cost of $32,000 for 25 cups -- a price jump of $527 per cup, officials said in a release at the time.

"While it is laudable that the men and women at Travis Air Force Base took action to curb this wasteful spending, this does not address the puzzling question of why the Air Force is buying these cups at such a high cost to begin with," Grassley said.

He has requested that Wilson submit a report to his office detailing the following:

  • why the price of the cups increased in the first place;
  • how many cups total had been purchased for the surged price;
  • if the cup is truly a necessity for airmen;
  • whether there are alternatives for the cups;
  • and whether Wilson will ask the Office of Inspector General to "review spending on these high-priced cups to determine if the Air Force did an adequate job of looking at alternatives."

"Every dollar that is spent on overpriced spare parts or replacement hot cups is a dollar that should have been spent on ensuring our national defense," the lawmaker said. "As Congress looks to authorize future defense spending, it is important to understand how the money is being spent, and why."

Grassley hopes to receive Wilson's reply no later than Oct. 19.

This isn't the first time he has raised concerns over wasteful spending. Grassley demanded answers in June after reports surfaced that the service was spending $10,000 on toilet seat covers for certain aircraft because parts were no longer available to quickly manufacture them.

Grassley queried the department on the "egregious and wasteful" spending after Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Will Roper told DefenseOne in an interview the service was shelling out thousands of dollars each time to replace broken seat covers instead of using 3D printing for a quick and less expensive fix.

"The DoD should view this revelation with alarm, because it could be used to cut the defense budget -- as it was in the 1980s. It seems to me that there is no way to justify a $10,000 price tag for a toilet seat lid. It's just not credible. It needs scrutiny," Grassley said.

Weeks later, the Air Force said it had found an alternative solution .

"We now produce the latrine cover for the C-5 [Galaxy] using 3D printing," service spokeswoman Ann Stefanek told Military.com in an email July 11. "Using this new process allows us to make parts that are no longer in production and is driving major cost savings."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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