Government Ethics: Luxury On The Taxpayer’s Dime

And the best part is, those poor suckers in coach are paying for all of this! Bwahahahaha!!!

“And the best part is, those poor suckers in coach are paying for all of this! Bwahahahaha!!!”

The Washington Examiner acquired records of federal agency travel through the Freedom of Information Act, and made an interesting discovery:

“The federal government spent millions of dollars on thousands of upgraded flights for employees in 2012 and 2013, paying many times more for business and first-class seats than the same flights would have cost in coach or the government-contracted rate. Premium travel reports from 14 federal agencies documenting the flights show these agencies alone spent an estimated $8.7 million on 1,903 upgraded flights in those two years. That was about $6.4 million more than the same coach and government-rate flights would have cost. The agencies spent $5.7 million in 2012, almost double the $3 million they paid for premium travel in 2013. The cost of coach and government-rate flights is approximate because several agencies either reported estimates for some coach fare or didn’t report them at all.”

There is just no excuse for this. None. I can conceive of some rare situations when first class travel would be called for, but not many. The accommodations in coach for most international air travel is perfectly endurable, and the huge difference in price isn’t justified unless you have serious back problems or some other malady. The basic ethical question every public servant should ask himself or herself is this: would I fly First Class if I had to pay for it? Almost always, the answer will be “no,’ and even if the answer is yes, the standard for buying luxury seating on the public’s tab should be more stringent.  It’s not their money. That’s really the answer to the threshold “What’s going on here?”  ethics query in this instance. What’s going on is that the public’s trust is being abused by officials casually using scarce taxpayer resources for their own comfort and convenience.

These reports suggest that the agencies are not properly monitoring premium travel, suggested Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against GovernmentWaste, who told the Examiner, “From the taxpayer’s point of view, everything should be done to avoid the use of first-class travel unless absolutely necessary.”


How do you argue with that? The defense offered will be that the amounts spent are relatively small: what’s a few million dollars when we’re wasting billions? A more obvious rationalization would be hard to find. The abuse is symptomatic. Government workers operate in a culture of arrogance and entitlement, and see taxpayer money as their slush fund. Unfair? Then let’s see them all fly coach.

It would be a start.


41 thoughts on “Government Ethics: Luxury On The Taxpayer’s Dime

  1. About the only rationalization I can think of (and it IS a rationalization) is this: Don’t ask “would I fly in first if I had to pay for it,” rather, ask “Would a private sector employee in my position have first class covered by his company?” Of course that’s just self-serving justification. Government employees get some benefits that private ones don’t, and vice versa- but I can see how that mental process COULD work and allow the fancy flyers to justify it in their own minds with something more substantial than “ha! Suckers!”

    • That absolutely should be the test. In fact, the good employees, like me, are always trying to save our companies money. Last week, I did same day travel from DC to Miami and back. My company wouldn’t have blinked if I flew in the night before and got a hotel, but I was pretty sure that I could do it and save my employer $200 in the process. Sure, I was tired the next day, but so what?

      • I didn’t actually mean “would a good employee expect this to be covered, or could he have saved his company money” I meant “If I didn’t work for the government could I get my employer to cover this.” The more self-serving way, that is. If they look at it your way, maybe they have fewer first class flights. If they look at it my way they are more able to convince themselves it’s just what anyone in their position would have access to, true or otherwise.

        • I’ve got an idea – the government pays for coach. If the employee wants to pay first class, they pay the difference out of their own pocket. The frugal can be frugal, the lavish lavish – with thier own money.

  2. Uh-oh! If this gets straightened out and the cranky feds lose their perks and DO end up flying in coach, I AM DONE WITH FLYING ON REGULARLY SCHEDULED COMMERCIAL AIRLINES. Flying coach is torturous enough already. Can’t we give the government credit where it’s due once in a while, for subsidizing a reduced level of stress in coach class?

  3. Jack,

    This topic has vexed me without end since I was in the military and worked with civilian employees of the government.

    It isn’t just travel costs: it’s lodging, it’s food, the whole per diem topic!

    Sorry, when you’re funded by the common man, you get to live like a Spartan when on government business.

      • I guess I can accept this if the Secretary of Defense or some easily recognizable high level government official is flying commercial. However, for some secretary for some bureau is doing it, I would just say “no!”. Too damn much debt as it is. Anyway the chances of the Secretary of Defense being on a commercial flight is nil.

    • The per diem thing makes me livid as well — my government friends and I fight about this all the time. This is how my per diem works — I have a certain amount to spend each day, but if I don’t spend it, the company keeps it. But for government employees, they get to KEEP whatever they don’t spend. I know people who are on several month assignments who get the cheapest housing possible so they can bank the difference. Ridiculous and unethical in my book. They rationalize that their salaries are less (which is not always true) so they should be able to keep it.

      • I was once involved in a merger of two consulting firms: one had per diems that they kept, the other expensed meals to the client. The former wanted to eat in the cafeteria and McDonalds so as to pocket the rest, and the latter in the finest restaurants. Human behavior, not government behavior.

        • *Human behavior in a governmental position, where stewardship of the public’s funds are the difference between defrauding the people and the Republic and not defrauding them.

        • Not always true either. I decide what to eat based on what I want to eat. I would say about 90% of the time I am well under my company’s per diem, and the same is true for many of my colleagues. Now, if I could BANK the difference, I’d be packing a lunch! 😉

      • I don’t think banking the difference is unethical, because on the flipside, should a govt employee want to live large, they in theory PAY the difference. I just think from the get go, what are “approved” levels of comfort are a bit more elevated than they need to be.

        However, that being said, part of your private sector role, being to keep direct costs on the client down (unless, fully disclosed, a client doesn’t care if you stay at the Hilton on their dime) then yes, you are responsible living as inexpensively as possible on business trips. The same principle applied to government travel, in turn implies lowering across the board approved levels of “comfort”.

        • Per diem is a different subject and one in which really doesn’t compare well with the flights. Per diem is a set rate, the traveler doesn’t set it and although there are ways to maximize or even take advantage of the system it really isn’t something the individual has control over. Additionally if you are traveling a lot DOD has a system more in line with what Beth has. DOD is not the only one who does it either, DHS/DOJ/DOS has similar systems, so when a Secret Service Agent is on continuous travel it doesn’t necessarily mean they are getting full rate per diem everywhere. Can you make out like a bandit on per diem? Sure, but I have also come out of my pocket as well, there is a way to recoup actual costs but most who travel often enough treat it as a wash, you make out on some and then you don’t on others.

          • I don’t see it as a different topic. Its government compensation related to travel expenses.

            Anyone can make out like a bandit, depending on how efficiently they live.

            The real question: are the rates calculated and determined higher than they ought to be or about right?

            And the answer is not determined by whether or not people “wash” or “make out like bandits”.

            • ”I don’t see it as a different topic. Its government compensation related to travel expenses.”

              I read Jacks post as identifying individual travelers as poor stewards of the peoples funds based on the flights chosen. Per diem is a rate based on travel location, the individual doesn’t control that, it is a separate issue.

              Anyone can make out like a bandit, depending on how efficiently they live.

              Simply not true, there are many variables that drive this, including individual efficiency, but things like purpose of travel, locations, modes of travel available, proximity to restaurants, working hours and even weather impact how far you can make that Per diem go.

              The real question: are the rates calculated and determined higher than they ought to be or about right?

              I think this is a valid question but from experience I would say generally a little high but about right, the reason I am ok with it being a little high is although I can absorb additional cost that Per diem may not cover in a given instance, someone else might not be able to and they are there on official business. Should there be different local rates depending on attending conference, actually doing work or hours of work? Maybe, but how far do you take it?

              And the answer is not determined by whether or not people “wash” or “make out like bandits”.

              But isn’t that the basis of the view that they are too high, that the money provided is not used during that trip therefore not needed? Just because someone goes to a conference that is held in the hotel they are staying at and makes money doesn’t mean a dog handler going out to support a DHS mission in the same Per diem rate area who is on duty with his dog all day and can’t just walk over to the nearest circle K to get himself a big gulp and hot dog should lose money?

          • If your company lets you bank the balance of your per diem they aren’t saying “live within this maximum,” they are saying “we are paying you this many dollars a day for the hassle of travelling, in adition to whatever salary you have coming to you.” If that’s the case there’s nothing unethical about living frugally to save the extra.

            Obviously if you did NOT get to keep the extra, it would be completely wrong to falsify records pushing the maximum while actually living the simple life to get the difference, but that’s a whole other thing.

      • I know people who are on several month assignments who get the cheapest housing possible so they can bank the difference. Ridiculous and unethical in my book.

        Um, if they are government employees you should have said ridiculous, unethical and illegal if that is what they are really doing. Lodging is a separate reimbursement that although has a maximum rate is only reimbursed at actual cost.

          • I would be surprised if it was not, shocked really, I know people from almost every agency and can’t think of a single one that this is not true of. There are variations such as organization procurement and group, but all only pay the actual cost. If you know of one I would be really interested in which one.

            • I don’t want to say here, but I have friends who work for some of the intelligence agencies that get a housing allowance while overseas that they can use however they want.

              • Beth that is a bit of a different animal, although it is to cover expenses it is looked at more as operational money and is justified as such. It is especially true for extended missions where doing periodic travel claims are difficult and prices are not fixed but can fluctuate based on color of skin or national origin.

      • The better justifcation is that if you don’t detail your expenses you get the max, and the cost of processing detailed travel expenses is greater than the savings. My per diem as an employee of a school district is NOT used for housing at all. That’s arranged separately. I could see where it would have to work differently for long term travel for indefinite periods though.

        • The FTR dictates that any authorized expense over $75 and specifically lodging must have a receipt for reimbursement. No lodging receipt, no money.

  4. Is it a perk which would attract a better class of job candidates? Or on the flip side, if it were known that one would be frequently flying coach, would you get only the desperate? Is it worth offering this incentive to get people to apply, take, and stay on the job?

    I truly have no idea, but I don’t think it’s as kneejerk as, “luxury, get rid of it.” It very well may be the result of some dispassionate calculations.

    • Charles’s reaction notwithstanding, coach travel is just fine on most flights; certainly on the jumbo jets used in a lot of overseas flights. I agree that it’s easier to work in First Class, but that only means if you are writing something. Reading? No difference, really.

      • Let’s not forget – coach seats were measurably larger back then.
        People were measurably smaller back then.
        Load factors were measurably less back then.
        You could occasionally get three seats across to sleep in at night. It is very much not the same thing today.
        But I suppose the bigger point is, pennies versus dollars. Does anybody really think you save a couple of money by exhausting civil servants? Is all this macho “when I was your age we had to…” stuff really so persuasive? If so, I have some slide rules for you to replace those nanny-state phone-calculators.

    • For what it’s worth, I only ever fly business class, never first class. The incremental difference for first is worth almost nothing, while the price is huge. But coach vs business? Night and day.

  5. I have to disagree with you. I fly a lot and on those occasions when I end up dealing with a client who has one of those moronic coach-class only policies, I either pay out of my own pocket and/or tell them I’m going to bill them extra time to cover it. It’s arguable for cross-country flights, but beyond the pale for international. Long distance coach travel, if you do it often, just ruins your effectiveness, and the people paying the bills pay for it many times over in lower quality of work

    There is no way in hell you can work in coach these days. And to take a 6-8 hour flight on top of the horror of airports at both ends, just ruins at least an entire workday. I cannot afford to do that; the extra cost for business class is a no-brainer.

    Honestly I look forward to business class travel because for some chunk of hours, I can work uninterrupted, in a comfortable environment, and get in an hour or two of sleep before hitting Frankfurt at 7AM or whatever. Contrast that with losing time, being completely messed up due to jet lag from 6 time zones. Then do that once every month or two, and see what it does to your work effectiveness. Most clients pay it without question, and the rest pay it without too much resistance – because they agree, and aren’t willing to go to bat against the bean-counters who initiate these policies. (I can think of one client exception, and there I use frequent flyier miles)

    As far as I’m concerned I don’t want some underpaid foreign service person representing my country after a night like that; ditto for someone negotiating foreign tax credits, or international justice agreements, or foreign trade deals.

    I think this is just more boogie-man attacks on ‘the gummint’ – knee jerk and overdone.

    And ” accommodations in coach for most international air travel is perfectly endurable.” Seriously? Jack, if you’re 5’4,” anorexic, and under 45 years of age, I agree. Else not.

      • A question of clarification: at what level in the government do policies like this begin to accept exceptions? The Secretary of State has his or her own airplane. It would not surprise me if assistant secretaries are allowed to fly business class to Singapore. But at what level does this shift? GS-13? GS-11?
        I would note that in the corporate world, there are also always at least two policies, varying by level. (Except in consulting, where even the seniors were always told to fly coach because you never knew when the client’s CEO would walk down the aisle past you seated in upper-class).

      • When USAID sent me to Mongolia (3 times), they specified coach only (it’s a 14 hour trip)

        Yes, but were you expected to put in 9 hours of work within 2 hours of arrival? Including making complex decisions?

        I live in Australia. 14 hrs is short-haul, it won’t even get you to the West Coast of the US. Seat width has shrunk by 10% in the last 10 years too, and less legroom now than in 747s.

        Upgraded Economy/ Economy premium isn’t as good as coach of 20 years ago, but close.

    • “I think this is just more boogie-man attacks on ‘the gummint’ – knee jerk and overdone.”

      So, to you people believe, during the era of excessive government spending, that finding ways to reduces costs on the modern taxpayer future unborn taxpayers are just looking for boogie men? Oh, and are also apparently uneducated, according to you… unless that’s how you spell ‘government’.

  6. This story doesn’t have enough information to make an informed ethical call.

    Now I am biased but on the DOD side the only thing I find shocking is that DOD is doing such a great job keeping cost down. “$4.5 million for 784 flights, compared to the $3.1 million cost of the same coach flights.” , most commonly claimed exception “required for agency mission” .

    I am sure there are a few questionable ones but for the most part this is perfectly reasonable. Having taken some of these fights and falling in the upgrade category more than a few times I can say from personal experience that every time it has happened there was a solid ethical reason and the decision/authorization is not made in a bubble. Each and every flight goes through an approval process and is routed through an approval chain where each level has to sign off on it. Non-coach flights in the DOD are further reviewed, researched, and justified every time.
    Consider this; some of these flights are last minute time sensitive ones in response to world events, getting a subject matter expert to country X. Some are driven by availability of coach seats, especially where some coach seats are so cheap or limited in availability they are booked for months in advanced. Time sensitivity of movement is likely the number one reason for most of these upgrades.

    Others are simple as overall cost savings, I had one flight where the country dictated the flight I was to be on, no big deal, the cost was low but a full trip cost analysis had to be done as to make that flight happen would have required additional costs in lodging in a layover country where the overall cost would have exceeded the upgraded connecting business flight cost many times. Even part of that was driven by flight availability.

    The NASA flights seem dubious to me but based on my knowledge on the DOD side and how it is presented in the article there is no way to make the call without additional information.

    • @Steven,

      When I was a civilian working for DoD, I NEVER knew of an upgrade from coach — not even a DASD-and-staff delegation flying from DC to a particularly nasty Asian destination half a world away.

      A quick Google brought up a link to DoS’s Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM); DoD’s policy was similar, so far as I recall. To summarize it: an upgrade from coach to business class is authorized ONLY if the trip is
      OVER 14 hours (including layovers)
      AND is URGENT and CANNOT be postponed
      AND is NOT for training or instruction
      AND the traveler reports to duty IMMEDIATELY on arrival
      AND the traveler took NO leave during or near travel dates.

      According to the FAM, the TRAVELER may be held liable for the excess expense. I seem to recall the DoD having more draconian penalties: there’s nothing like a letter in a military personnel file to force an “out” in the “up or out” promotion system.

  7. Jack,

    I don’t suppose you’d be very ethically impressed by the taxpayer-funded expense standards from decades ago, when ALL Federal official travel was authorized to be first class.

    But I’m sure that somewhere in the DC area there are a few old retired civil servants who still remember the “Noon Saloon” — the 1950s American Airlines 12:00pm all-first-class nonstop flight from National Airport to Los Angeles.

  8. I have, on at least two occasions that I can remember when flying for the Federal Government (as a contractor), been forced to purchase a Business Class seat because all of the regular coach seats were already sold (and the plane was otherwise overbooked). It was that, or cancel the trip; and for the sake of an extra $50, my PM signed off on it.

    But in another case, I saved the Government money by combining two trips on consecutive weeks into one. In that particular case, I was to spend one week in El Paso, then the following week in Houston. Since the El Paso return flight connected in Houston anyway, I showed my PM that a weekend’s worth of hotel plus per-diem in Houston was less expensive than returning home and flying back out.

    And one time, I got upgraded to first class on a trip to Honolulu when my wife came along. (USG paid for my ticket, I paid for hers.) I didn’t purchase the upgrade or even ask for it, I just got told we would be in “row 3” when we checked in. People ask me how I got the upgrade, and I tell them, “I have no idea. I didn’t ask. I didn’t want them to look into it and discover that it was a mistake.” 🙂


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