State workers shouldn't be flying business class

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

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

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 carriers at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. The difference? In one case, a half-dozen travelers could have saved more than $7,000 each and still flown business class on another airline.

Maryland Department of Transportation officials say they've agreed to comply with state regulations regarding travel but note 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," according to the agency's written response to the audit.

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? According to the regulations governing state employee travel issued by the state Department of Budget and Management, business class travel is allowed to destinations other than those in North America the Caribbean or Hawaii. But those same regulations state that employees should use the "lowest logical fares," an apparent self-contradiction within the guidelines.

Maryland Aviation Administration 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 coming and going to Baltimore are 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. Apparently, state travel regulations need to be rewritten to underscore that sensible approach.

State government has enough budget problems without frittering away tax dollars on luxuries like fine wines and warm pastry. 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.