The plane crash near Katyn, Russia, that killed dozens of Poland’s top political leaders on Saturday has been compared to “Barack and Michelle Obama, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Olympia Snowe, Christopher Dodd, Rahm Emanuel, [and] the Joint Chiefs of Staff” crashing “a half mile from Pearl Harbor.” Indeed, the Soviet-era jet was carrying President Lech Kaczynski as well as his wife, the central bank governor, a deputy foreign minister, and several members of parliament, among others. Does the United States have policies in place to keep the same thing from happening here?
Not exactly. The Secret Service, which is charged with protecting the president and vice president, does not have an official written rule mandating that the two travel separately, and the government is not overly concerned with the possibility of a so-called “decapitating strike”—whether intentional or accidental—on Air Force One. (The presidential fleet is the best-maintained in the world and piloted by Air Force pilots.) In practice, however, the axiom that the commander-in-chief and his second “never fly together” bears out. Sources outside the Secret Service maintain that it’s considered taboo for the president and vice president to board the same aircraft. Besides, not only do Obama and Biden have substantially different schedules, but they also both maintain large entourages (aides, security, and so forth), making it highly impractical for them to share a ride in a helicopter or plane—or, for that matter, a car. The Secret Service can also decide on a case-by-case basis to split up a traveling party if, for any reason, it seems wise to do so.
As for the legislative branch, it’s customary for senators to avoid flying in particularly large groups, but there is no outright prohibition. In 1971, almost the entire Senate flew on two planes to Sen. Richard Russell’s funeral in Georgia. Because of heavy fog, the planes were diverted to a military airport, and the senators had to watch the funeral on closed circuit television. The incident perturbed Majority Leader Michael Mansfield, who directed that, in the future, senators should disperse when traveling. After Sept. 11, a large number of senators rode on Amtrak together for a special session in New York, thus breaking the unofficial rule—but they were accompanied by a robust security detail.
Fears of a deliberate attack on D.C., rather than an accident on an aircraft, have occasioned the most thinking on succession and continuity of government. During the State of the Union address or presidential inaugurations, a designated survivor—usually a Cabinet member—watches from an undisclosed location while the country’s top leaders come together. If a catastrophe were to occur, killing all those at the special event, then the designated survivor would become the acting president. This practice dates back to the Cold War, when fears of a nuclear attack were particularly intense.
In the private sector, rules on group travel are quite pervasive. Many large corporations limit the number of executive-level personnel (the CEO, the CFO, vice presidents) who can fly on the same corporate or commercial jet. Some of these policies were created or revised in the late 1980s, after the 1987 PSA flight that killed the president and three other managers from Chevron USA, as well as three officials from Pacific Bell.
Poland does have measures in place to preserve continuity and security in case of disaster. It’s common practice for the president and prime minister to travel separately. (The prime minister was not on the jet that crashed on Saturday.) Since 2008, when a military plane carrying senior Polish air force personnel crashed and all on board perished, heads of military units no longer fly with their deputies. But to date there is no prohibition on the chiefs themselves flying together, and in fact the army chief of staff, navy chief commander, and the heads of the air and land forces were among the victims of Saturday’s crash.
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Explainer thanks Donald A. Ritchie of the Senate Historical Office and Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution.