If you want to fly first class for airplane travel and leave the cost to the taxpayers, join NASA. Scripps News is reporting that there have been numerous instances in recent years of NASA employees taking upgraded flights costing tens of thousands of dollars more than the cost for coach travel.
Scripps reports that in a four-year period, NASA approved upgraded tickets costing more than $3,000 apiece for 515 separate flight reservations.
The General Services Administration reports that many federal agencies have ignored disclosing their spending on premium fares; the GSA’s annual reports show that 54 of 75 federal agencies had at least one year between 2009-2013 in which they failed to file a report. Two of them, The Small Business Administration and the Department of Agriculture, have not bothered to file for the last five years. NASA did not disclose any upgrades for the entire year of 2012. NASA officials said that the GSA never contacted them to urge them to make a report.
In 2007, the Government Accountability Office found $146 million spent on unnecessary premium tickets government-wide, and noted that 67% of the upgrades were authorized improperly. The GAO wanted to create an office to monitor the situation, but it never happened.
Some examples of the lassitude regarding travel include NASA booking a flight for Ames Research Center Director Simon “Pete” Worden to fly first class one-way, cost: $14,773, from Washington D.C. to San Francisco. A coach ticket would have cost $189. Interestingly, NASA’s annual report listing its first and business class “premium” flights during 2011 didn’t mention Worden’s flight. Another example; NASA administrator Charles Bolden spent $16,515 one way for a business class ticket from Beijing to Washington D.C. in 2010. Coach price? $958. Bolden also upgraded himself and his wife for a trip from Tokyo to Houston that cost $3,571 per person as well as a trip from Frankfurt to Washington DC that cost $4,463 per ticket. Michael O’Brien, Associate Administrator for International and Interagency Relations, spent $95,260 in for 19 premium trips within four years.
Elizabeth Robinson, NASA’s chief financial officer, said NASA was trying to figure out why there were errors dating back from 2009 in travel disclosures; NASA communications director David Weaver added, “We’ve identified some cases where there are inaccuracies and we are being very forthright about that and we are addressing those inconsistencies.” One example was a June 2013 trip by Bolden recorded as a $4,368 business class ticket for a 1½-hour flight from Frankfurt to Vienna. But the flight actually started in Los Angeles, which the computer did not mention. NASA stated, “What we’re finding with Bolden’s travel is indicative of the discrepancies we’re finding throughout the travel reports.”
The GSA does report that agencies have lessened their premium travel by 40% in recent years, and less than 1% of overall travel within the agencies is premium travel. The only instances where premium travel is legitimate for government employees are either when the traveler is medially disabled, has to fly for more than 14 hours or cannot get a coach within 24 hours of the departure time.
NASA does blame the GSA in part; asserting that the GSA system Traveltrax “does not provide a complete or verifiable comparison of premium fare costs versus coach fare … GSA Traveltrax is updated based on reservation data, not the final ticketed cost paid by the government, therefore the total premium fare amount listed for NASA in the GSA’s annual report does not reflect actual fares paid.” NASA stated that the GSA has admitted Traveltrax has some internal problems.
But GSA agency spokesman Dan Cruz responded, “While systems like Traveltrax give agencies a start on the research, agencies have control of the data and may change individual records or groups of records after it is extracted from the Traveltrax program before submitting it to GSA.”
NASA’s office of inspector general said the office has never audited premium travel.
Of course, it’s not just NASA: the total for all 11,000 employees of the U.S. Department of Education using premium upgrades was $56,180 in five years.