First Class On Your Dime

Can’t afford to fly first class? Well, at least your taxes are paying for somebody else to get the wide seats and the meal service.

Federal employees spent at least $146 million over the course of a year to buy tickets in premium classes – first or business – in violation of policies requiring them to buy coach fares under most circumstances, according to the Government Accountability Office.

USA Today has the story. And here’s the full report.

The report said that "of the $230 million the federal government spent on over 53,000 premium class airline tickets (including at least one leg of premium class travel) from July 1, 2005, through June 30, 2006, 67 percent were either not properly authorized, not properly justified, or both." It gave some fairly galling examples:

  • A Department of Agriculture executive flew business class from Washington, D.C., to Zurich, Switzerland, at a cost of $7,500 compared to $900 for a coach class ticket.
  • The State Department paid $46,000 to fly a family of eight in premium class to relocate from Washington, D.C., to Eastern Europe. Coach tickets would have cost $12,000.
  • A Department of Defense executive paid $105,000 to fly premium class 15 times, claiming a medical condition that would permit premium class travel under government policy. The condition was not properly documented.
  • A Department of Agriculture executive spent $62,000 for 10 premium class trips from Washington to Western Europe without proper authorization from July 1, 2005, through September 30, 2006. Coach tickets would have cost less than $9,000.

The GAO wasn’t looking for cases where government employees used frequent flier status or miles to upgrade to business or first class. That doesn’t cost the government anything. And it’s consistent with policies in much of the private sector. If you fly a whole lot, you won’t get stuck in coach very often. (And if you do, you’ll probably be able to get the roomier exit rows or bulkheads.)

The report noted that the biggest offenders were the biggest cheeses.

Quoth the GAO: " Our testing indicated that senior executives (senior-level executives and presidential appointees with Senate confirmation) accounted for 15 percent of premium class travel while constituting about one-half of 1 percent of the federal workforce."

It cited one case where a Department of Agriculture executive flew in business class to Hong Kong while 11 lower-level employees flew in coach – even though they would have been permitted in business class under a rule that allows it for flights over 14 hours.

That’s not uncommon in the private sector, but it’s not how the government is supposed to operate. I’ve read some online chatter from business fliers whose companies pay for them to fly first and business class, and who think government employees – or at least high-ranking ones – should have the same perks. I’m not sure I agree, but if the government policy is wrong, it should be changed, not ignored.

And how’s this for an idea: how about making coach class a less punishing experience, starting with seat pitch? Less than 32 inches is just inhumane, in any case. Maybe people would feel less inclined to break rules if the rules didn’t give them leg cramps.


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