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Warm bread and pastries. A complimentary bar. Extra-wide seats. Use of a private lounge at London Heathrow with a complimentary glass of champagne. These are the perks available to those who fly business class on British Airways. Just ask top officials at the Maryland Aviation Administration.

Between 2005 and 2008, MAA executives flew British Airways business class 67 times, chiefly to meet with British Airways officials. According to a recent legislative audit, that cost the state $543,000 and violated Maryland regulations for foreign travel.

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Even by business class standards, the tickets were pricey. Auditors discovered that state aviation officials paid as much as $10,960 for them when cheaper tickets were available from other Baltimore-Washington Interational Thurgood Marshall Airport carriers. The difference? In one case, they could have saved more than $7,000 each and still flown business class on another airline.

(Sun photo: Elizabeth Malby)

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In an official response to the audit findings, Maryland Department of Transportation officials agree to comply with state regulations regarding travel but claim that current regulations permit business class tickets. "MAA personnel will ensure foreign travel is conducted in the most cost efficient manner possible consistent with state policy."

But what's cost efficient? Is taking a business class flight efficient when coach seats are readily available? Is business or first class travel ever appropriate?

MAA officials may have flown business class, in part, to support British Airways, an important BWI international carrier. The airport has had trouble retaining foreign carriers, and the state already pays millions of dollars each year in incentive payments. Business class seats are far more lucrative for the airline than coach class.

BWI's difficulties keeping foreign flights is well-documented. Currently, there are only seven overseas departures daily, and British Airways to London is the only European flight. Whether British Airways is even aware that Maryland has been such a good business class patron is not clear.

What should be made crystal-clear, however, is that state employees -- whether they work for the aviation administration or anywhere else -- have no business spending taxpayer money on business class travel.

If current state regulations don't specify that, they need to be rewritten. State government has enough budget problems without frittering away tax dollars on luxuries. Too bad it requires an outside auditor to call attention to such foolishness. This is the kind of wasteful spending that should have been trimmed even before the economic recession hit.

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