First-class feds

The Baltimore Sun

With memories still fresh of a summer air travel season that easily ranked worst ever for delays, cancellations, lost baggage and general passenger misery comes word that federal workers have been breaking the rules by booking premium seats at taxpayer expense.

Back in the cheap seats, where most taxpayers ride, the outrage is palpable.

President Bush, who recently promised relief from the torture of the air, should include a crackdown on such abuses as part of his package.

Now, that could be the fatigue and frustration talking. Sharing the pain isn't the best solution. Ideally, air travel should be comfortable and convenient for everyone. Until it is, though, public employees can't be allowed to scam their way into extra legroom and free cocktails.

As it is, internal controls are so lax that federal workers spent $146 million in improper first-class and business-class travel from July 1, 2005, to June 30, 2006, according to an investigation by the Government Accountability Office. And that may be only the tip of the iceberg because some agencies don't require business-class travel to be reported.

This reporting lapse must be corrected, the GAO said, because the difference between coach and business-class seats can be thousands of dollars per flight, with business class running five or even 10 times more than coach. First class is even higher.

Federal employees are sometimes permitted to travel in premium seats. For example, exceptions are made for security reasons, for certain medical conditions or if they have to spend 14 hours or more in the air.

But the GAO found many instances where the rules were stretched too far, as in the case of a Foreign Agricultural Service executive who made 10 premium-class trips from Washington to Geneva, Paris and other European destinations at a cost of $62,000 based on permission granted by a subordinate - effectively self-approval. In another instance, a Defense Department traveler made 15 premium-class round-trip flights, at a total cost of $100,000, based on a non-life-changing surgery in 2001 attested to by only another department employee, not a doctor.

This region is home to a large population of federal employees, most of whom are doubtless hard-working public servants. The federal government can be credited for this region's robust economy.

At a time, though, when the government is deep in debt and air travel has generally become such an ordeal, spending tax money on unjustified luxury travel is not only wasteful but downright offensive. Those flights should be canceled.

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