The Tale of the $1,300 Coffee Cups

A Senator has raised questions about the Air Force’s purchase of over $50,000 worth of cups to reheat liquid during flights.

The Air Force and Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) have been going back and forth about why the Air Force recently purchased coffee cups with taxpayer dollars at a cost of $1,280 each.

Grassley sent a letter to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson in which he asked several questions about why the Air Force felt it was ok to spend a total of almost $56,000 on coffee cups to reheat liquids when it had spent roughly half that just two years ago.

The cups plug into outlets on cargo planes to reheat liquid such as water or coffee. It turned out they had faulty plastic handles that broke easily, and the Air Force had to buy new ones when the handles broke because the replacement parts were no longer manufactured.

Wilson sent Grassley a response in which she defended the purchases, stating that the cost of raw materials to produce the cups had increased substantially which led to the sharp increase in the cost of the cups.

However, she also said that the Air Force was also looking at using 3D printing to produce the cups as well as other needed parts “at a fraction of the cost of complete cup procurement.” She noted in her letter that replacing the handles on these cups would cost about 50 cents each with 3D printing.

Grassley said that he appreciated the timely response but that it left him with more questions.

“While I appreciate that the Air Force is working to find innovations that would help save taxpayer dollars, it remains unclear why it cannot find a cheaper alternative to a $1,280 cup. Government officials have the responsibility to use taxpayer dollars efficiently. Too often, that’s not the case. I intend to pursue this issue further,” Grassley said.

A copy of Grassley’s original letter and Wilson’s response are included below.

Dr. Heather Wilson
Secretary of the Air Force
1670 Air Force Pentagon
Washington, DC 23010

Dear Secretary Wilson,

I have questions about yet another report of wasteful spending in the Department of Defense.

In an article on, it was reported that the 60th Ariel Port Squadron at Travis Air Force Base has spent nearly $56,000 on cups that can reheat liquids during flight over the last three years. This year alone, 25 cups were purchased at a cost of $1,280 per cup.

Despite the exorbitant price tag, this squadron reports that the cups have handles that break easily when dropped, and since spare parts are not available, the whole cup must be replaced. A team at Travis Air Force Base has reportedly come up with a solution to the breaking handles, which will save the Air Force the cost of constantly replacing the cup. 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.

According to officials at Travis Air Force Base, each cup cost $693 in 2016. In the last 2 years, that price has nearly doubled. Paying nearly $700 for a single cup is bad enough, but it’s simply beyond reason to continue to pay ever-increasing prices for something as simple as a coffee cup that is so fragile that it needs to be constantly replaced.

As you know, earlier this year I raised concerns about overpriced toilet seat lids purchased by the Air Force. I still have yet to receive satisfactory answers to my questions on that matter.

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. This report also heightens my concern that the DOD Office of Inspector General is not prioritizing oversight of wasteful spending.

To address these concerns, I request a response to the following questions.

  1. The 60th Ariel Port Squadron at Travis Air Force Base has reportedly spent $56,000 on replacing hot cups since 2016. How many cups have been purchased by the Air Force during this timeframe, and what is the total cost of these purchases?
  2. Why has the price of the hot cup increased from $693 in 2016 to $1,280 in 2018?
  3. What cheaper alternatives for providing hot coffee to crew have been explored by the Air Force? Is this particular cup truly necessary, or are there other more cost effective options available?
  4. Will you be asking 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, and what would have been a better choice?

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. As Congress looks to authorize future defense spending, it is important to understand how the money is being spent, and why.

Please respond to these questions by no later than October 19, 2018.

The Honorable Charles E. Grassley
Committee on the Judiciary
United States Senate
Washington, D.C. 20510-6275

Dear Mr. Chairman:

I am responding to your questions in your October 2, 2018 letter referencing procurement of water heaters used across the Air Force cargo fleet, including 59 KC-10, 52 C-5, and 222 C-17 aircraft. You are right to be concerned about the high costs of spare parts and I remain thankful to have your support in addressing this problem. The average age of our KC-10 fleet is 34 years and it uses approximately 75,000 different parts.

Many suppliers have either stopped producing certain parts or have gone out of business. It is simply irresponsible to spend thousands of dollars on manufactured parts when we have the technology available to produce them ourselves. In July 2018, I directed creation of the Air Force Rapid Sustainment Office to further develop agile manufacturing (3D printing, cold spray, digital modeling, etc.) to develop and deliver parts at a fraction of the costs of using traditional manufacturing methods. We recently demonstrated capability to 3-D print replacement handles for this item at a cost of about fifty cents each.

Advancing manufacturing is a significant priority for all of the Services as part of a broader strategy to reform acquisition and drive down cost. The Rapid Sustainment Initiative, included in the FY19 Senate Defense Appropriations Bill, will continue to advance the efforts of all the Services in this regard. We very much appreciate your support of this initiative. While 3-D printing of parts is one promising way to reduce the cost of maintaining aircraft, there are others that we are also pursing, including techniques that repair the worn surface of metals so that parts do not have to be replaced.

There are opportunities to get better value for taxpayer dollars and we trust that our innovative Airmen will deliver. Thank you for your continued interest in this very important work. We stand ready to brief you on our ongoing initiatives.

About the Author

Ian Smith is one of the co-founders of He has over 20 years of combined experience in media and government services, having worked at two government contracting firms and an online news and web development company prior to his current role at FedSmith.