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I’m shocked, SHOCKED – Federal Employees Abuse Business-Class Travel

October 3, 2007 | Posted in: Airfare News,Airline News

Yes, believe it or not, we’re hearing that federal employees are abusing their own rules on flying business-class.

In other words, they should be flying coach, but they’re bumping themselves up.

And sometimes that means spending thousands more on a ticket than they’re supposed to. This information is courtesy of a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which says these rip-offs are costing us taxpayers an extra $145-million a year…

People shouldn’t break rules. Period.

But (and this is a pretty sizable but), lets look at those rules for a moment, shall we?

The government generally bans business-class flying on flights shorter than 14-hours. 14-HOURS! Thats a pretty long haul to be sitting cramped in coach, especially if you’re working (these abuses occurred on work-related flights; they were not pleasure jaunts).

And get this: if your flight DOES last longer than 14-hours, and you do get to sit in business-class, you apparently have to go directly to work, without a rest period!

I guess the thinking is, you will be all rested up from your business-class comfort. I suppose its possible, but its never really worked for me.

I’m curious about what you think, on a couple of fronts: do you get much rest on one of those grueling, double-digit hour flights?

And how easy is it for the government to attract great talent from the private sector, with what some would say are pretty harsh flight-class regulations?

Don’t get me wrong; the people who flew business when they weren’t entitled to, did wrong, and they cost you and me and every taxpayer, money.

Of course, I think there’s a simple solution to this. The government should check out FareCompare. And they might want to pay special attention to our section on how to get Discount First-Class air fares.

14 Responses to “I’m shocked, SHOCKED – Federal Employees Abuse Business-Class Travel”

  1. Rick Seaney says:

    In theory government and military personnel must buy their airline tickets through approved government sites (run by 3 government contractors last I checked a few years ago). In practice the prices on these sites are much higher than on the open market.

    I spent some time chatting with some government employees who were upset that they were wasting money by being forced to use these “approved” sites unless they got a supervisor to approve purchasing outside them (usually for less).

    Look for a tool in the new future that shows all of the government and military airfares (we have them in our database, just didn’t think about showing them).

    Airlines bid each year on several city pairs and in theory when they win, they are the only airline for that market (again unless a purchase outside is approved).

    I’ll be chatting more about this later, but there are always 2 sides to every story — I am sure this one has another side as well.

  2. Elliot Campbell says:

    Those rules are harsh…even for the Gov’t.

    When I worked for the Government of Canada in the early 2000′s (as an intern….so I never did any travel), I believe the rules were you were allowed to buy business class if the trip was 7 hours or longer. I think this makes a lot more sense. For Canada, and for the US too…a rule like this essentially means any domestic flights are in coach, with international travel (between US and Canada or Mexico excluded, of course) you get to go to biz. It makes sense.

    My other thought is…how many flights actually exist that go longer than 14 hours. Only a handful. And how many government officials are flying that far. Probably very few.

    There are abuses anywhere, of course, but for the most part, government workers work hard for us, ordinary Americans. Us, the citizenry, and the country should give them a break and allow them to fly biz on long-haul flights of 7 hours +.

  3. David Mandel says:

    I am a retired US Foreign Service Officer. I and my family suffered under overly strict travel regulations for 35 years. Imagine flying half way around the world in coach with four children under 5 as my wife and did when we flew from New York to New Delhi on Pan Am 1. At one point, we had to turn over our frequent flyer miles if they were earned on government paid for tickets. That didn’t last long because it was unworkable and unenforceable. I should point out that that was a result of a GAO audit recommendation.

    If I recall correctly, the rule on up-grading is 14 hours with a stopover of less than 4 hours. The Foreign Services of most other governments and major international organizations such as the UN and World Bank have much more liberal rules as do most private sector firms. When contractors work for the US Government they are paid according to their company travel policies not US Government regs. On many occassions,I and my family had to fly to post in coach while contractor personnel were flying business class.

    None-the-less, I never cheated and I do not like the idea of other Federal employees cheating. We all run into situations in which the rules (and even laws) are silly but most of us suck it up and get on with it. For the vast majority of Government workers silly rules come with the turf. Given the large amount of Federally funded travel, I believe the bad eggs represent a small group. Unfortunately, they give a bad name to the many who squeeze themselves into tight coach seats for endless hours as they cross multiple time zomes and then go straight into important meetings with little or no sleep.

  4. SS says:

    I think those rules are spot on, and shame on the cheaters. Government should be not-for-profit, and with that, comes coach instead of business/first class. That is the way the not-for-profit my husband and I work for run. We get off the planes and go to work, and if we want better seats on the plane to feel a bit more rested, then we are responsible for the difference in cost.

    I don’t think that government employees should be forced onto the worst flights (redeyes, 12 hour layovers) because that defeats the purpose when they have to be paid for that time; but we should not be forced to pay for them to ride in business class via our tax dollars, when we can’t pay for business class seats for ourselves.

    To the above poster, I have little sympathy for complaints of 4 kids under 5 on a business trip, unless those children were were pulling their own weight in a government job. Too long have government employees burned taxpayer dollars for frivolities, and then they have the nerve to demand more for themselves (or worse, for their families). Wouldn’t we all like a family trip in business class on someone else’s dime?

  5. LWallace says:

    I think that when those of us in military families are allowed to fly in business class, that’s when everyone else should be allowed. The active duty servicemembers put a heck of a lot more on the line than your average government worker, and deserve to have the comfort available to them. As for the post by SS, YES travelling with children IS a business trip! When my husband was transferred from HAWAII to GERMANY, I would have gladly paid the difference in fares, if we were paid enough to afford it! A military move, or one for a family in the diplomatic corps, can be one that takes our families literally halfway around the world.
    The issue I personally have is with the airlines charging so darn much for those seats! How ridiculous that a seat with 4-6 inches more room all around should cost $5000.00 when a coach seat on that same flight is $250.00. How they can justify this is beyond my understanding.

  6. Walt Breier says:

    The solution is simple, just charge them back for the cost difference. I guarantee they will never do it again.

  7. David Mandel says:

    RE Mr. Beier’s comment, that is exactly what happens when a Govermnet employee is caught cheating or even if he/she is overpaid by accident. And if he/she doesn’t repay on demand, the amount due is deducted from the person’s salary.

    Re LWallace’s comment, I agree totally with one added point. It is off-topic but I really need to make it. The members of the foreign service and other US Government employees who work overseas as I did are at risk too. Remember Tom Foley, shot down in Jordan and the large number of foreign service people serving in Iraq. I flew half way around the world to Beirut in coach in order to be in the US Embassy when it was bombed in 1983. I walked out with relatively minor injuries. Sixteen of my American colleagues did not.

    RE SS, I am afraid you’ve got it wrong. I was enroute to a two year posting in newly independent Bangladesh. I also took my 4 kids on “business” trips to places like Bogota and New Delhi.

    I am delighted that SS is altruistic enough to fly coach everywhere. Unfortunately, that is not true of all SS’s non-profit colleagues. As the manager of foreign assistance programs, I made grants to and worked closely with many well know NGO’s. The same rules regarding travel under US Government grants applies to them as to for-profit contractors. Rest assured, they travel business class when justified according to their rules which are often more liberal than the US Government’s.

    The issue is one of efficiency. What do people who travel for work need in order to enable them to do a good job (i.e. earn their pay) regardless of who they work for. I can tell you that I was not at my best after stumbling off a direct flight in coach class from DC to Manila and straight into meetings. A tax payer’s dollar is wasted regardless of whether it is mispent by an errant employee or an employee trying to do his best despite silly rules and regulations.

  8. L. penbacker says:

    As an airline ticket agent – I can see another side to this story. Government/military employees are usually required by contract to book a government fare negotiated by the airlines AND gov. These fares are awarded BY the government to each airline. I have seen government/military passengers travel on extremely high fares. They usually are not able to travel on the lowest possible fare because the gov does not allow it.
    When checking in, I find that the passenger has ‘upgraded’ to Business or First with there OWN personal frequesnt flyer milieage. I also have experienced when we are overbook on our flights we upgrade to the high cabin usually by frequest flyer status or the highest fare paid. I appreicate the GAO auditors looking into this, however, in all fairness, what an auditor reviews on a ticket does not always tell the full story. We also see the abuse, don’t get me wrong, but I feel that there are two sides to every story.

  9. Crystal says:

    How sad that some government employees have to sit in coach. How sad that that same govt employee can take her entire extended family of 12 on a trip to Vegas to see her son get married using what? Not money…oh no, using her frequent flier miles that she’s been accruing for 15 plus years. I have No problem with govt employees flying business…let them BUY that business class ticket with their frequent flyer miles. I shudder to think how many millions of dollars we are losing on this allowed abuse. Plus, I’m weary of another friend boasting about all her summer European jaunts w/family when every one of those tickets has been “bought” by her government earned frequent flyer miles. It’s an atrocity. Yet, I am supposed to feel sorry for a govt employee who has to ride coach?? No Way.

  10. David Mandel says:

    Crystal, I would be happy to send you the Federal Government’s hotline number so you can report “waste, fraud and corruption”. Every group has its bad apples. I would guess the percentage of bad apples in the Federal Government’s barrel is about the same as the percentage in the general population or IBM or a church group.

    I noted in previous post that the Government tried to control the use of frequent flyer miles. The airlines wouldn’t allow them to be turned over miles to someone else for use by someone else. Then we were told that if we cashed in the miles for a ticket we had to turn them over to our agency for use by other employees. Of course the airlines don’t allow this either. Finally we were told we could use miles for only fore upgrades. Needless to say this is unenforceable. Government employees don’t only fly on Government paid for tickets. How do you separate the miles earned with their money and the miles earned with Government money. Private firms surely do not attempt to control the use of frequent flyer miles. In reality there is no cost to the Government when an employee earns miles on a government paid for ticket.

    I agree with L.penbackers comments. In an attempt to take full control of the purchase of air travel because government employees can’t be trusted and the mistaken belief that the Government can do it more cheaply, Government agencies negotiate contracts with travel agents and with the airlines. As a result, Government employees generally pay more to fly.

    Often more money is wasted because of legislation then a few cheating employees. A good case in this discussion is the “Fly America” rule. All federal employees and I believe the military as well as government contractors and grantees must fly on American carriers to the fullest extent possible. There are books full of regulations on how to determine what “fullest extent possible” means. The “Fly America” rule is a subsidy for American airlines and a hidden tax on American tax payers.

  11. Mike Green says:

    Interesting comments, some obviously made by people who don’t travel much (any?) on business. I work for a quasi-government organization that follows GSA travel policies. I’m expected to travel 100-150k miles/year, often on short notice. I travel coach and I have to make do on GSA per-diem budgets (in the US). Try traveling to NYC, San Francisco, LA, Chicago, Boston, or DC at the last minute and staying within that limit. Last year I was on the road for 3 months and paid $3,000 _out of my own pocket_ for the privilege (seriously) of serving people, many of whom only think that I’m trying to screw them by flying business class on my “glamorous” 22 hour jaunt to Hong Kong.

    Ditto to all of the people who have already noted how the government’s own policies cause 100x more waste than all of the “extravagant” business-class travel combined.

  12. Mark says:

    all of these posts illustrate a couple things.

    1) Govenment employees ensure alot, mostly due to the strict travel rules.

    2) Government travel regulations are much stricter than the private sector equivalent.

    I want everyone to remember this the next time they complain about the quality of government work. Unless policies like this change, the government will never be able to attract good talent and the quality of work will suffer.

    As a taxpayer, I would be more than happy to pay for a $5000 seat, assuming the person sitting in it is as qualified as their peer in the private sector.

  13. Traveller says:

    I couldn’t agree more with Mark.

    I don’t work for the federal govt. I work for a business and the travel policy is much more flexible (flights over 7 hours = biz class).

    Look, if you’re going to ask people to be road warriors and travel all over the country, probably for lower pay than their peers in similar roles in the business community, it’s pretty unreasonable for anyone to expect them to :
    1. accept a much worse travel policy than they’d be expected to accept in industry
    2. Be ok with it, in the name of doing public good
    3. Be as competent as their peers in business

    I’m definitely not saying that the people who abused the system shouldn’t be punished – not at all.

    But look, those things (1&2 vs. 3) are not congruent. I wonder how retention of star talent at these govt organizations is going, with policies that “stick it to the employee” who is called on to make continual long haul travel.

    So if you want to wind up with govt employees that are half as competent, but are the only ones that can be retained, do you think the taxpayer wins in that arrangement?

    As a taxpayer, I’d gladly pay for 4-5 business class flights for a single excellent employee, who if retained, could probably offset the salary of a many worthless ones who should be sacked, but never are. Those govt employees with the entitlement mentality that just sit all day and charge their time, and expect to get paid for basically doing nothing are the ones that GAO should look at to save the taxpayer money, not the high performers who are trying to transform the organization.

  14. rivka4x says:

    what about AA flight attendants and their travel companions….I know of one who has supported the same companion tickets for at least 12 trips in the last 9 months then AA sent out em’s requesting passengers to ask the government for bailouts and help because of the rising price of oil…why not stop the employee free tickets with friends policy…how much would that save??? and not taxpayers expense if a bailout occurs…anyone that flies should make their voices heard! to American and the government!

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