Torqued: Appropriate Gov't Charter versus Abuse

 - December 1, 2017, 9:00 AM

With all the recent scandals involving cabinet cecretaries misusing government travel budgets to mix business trips with private junkets to vacation homes, lunches with family members or political events, private flight charters are once again taking a hit in the mainstream media and on social media. Former Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price was forced to resign after investigative reports revealed that he had taken at least 26 charter jet flights costing approximately $400,000. His justification for flying charter for government work looked slim—he allegedly flew a number of times to cities where he had vacation homes or to have lunch with his son—and the controversy painted charter flying as the province of the decadent elite, rather than as a business tool needed in appropriate circumstances to get the government’s work done effectively and efficiently. 

 As someone who has worked with private charter companies for many years, I believe the media portrayal is not only unfair but also requires a response. First, it’s unfair because it paints the industry in a bad light—as though the misuse were the charter companies’ fault and not just the government officials’. Second, it’s the wrong message. If high-level officials are to be more efficient and productive, private charters are the appropriate way to travel in some cases. But with all the ongoing investigations by inspectors general in multiple executive departments, it’s likely that there will be a further crackdown on private charters, even when such use would be not only legal and proper but also enhance government operations. That would be an unfortunate result. 

I was hoping that one of the aviation alphabet groups would speak up in defense of high-level government officials such as cabinet secretaries using private charters to travel on government business—in appropriate circumstances—just as many corporate CEOs do. As important as the work these corporate CEOs might do, the government’s business affects all of us, and I, for one, would like to see that work done as efficiently and effectively as possible. 

And travel by private charters does make trips on hectic schedules not only more convenient but also more productive. That’s hardly a secret to any of us who have had the opportunity to compare trying to do work on commercial flights with doing work on private charters—from working comfortably on a laptop to holding strategy sessions with staff—without worrying that private conversations will be overheard and published in front page newspaper articles. That has happened on more than one occasion recently. And that’s not even considering the time involved in taking a commercial flight today—from traveling to or connecting through large hubs to the time going through security—time that is pretty much wasted, from a business perspective.  It’s not that these officials are too important to be inconvenienced; it’s that the American people deserve to get the most productivity from them as possible.

Optics Matter

Having heard nothing from these aviation groups, I thought I’d take a shot at defending the use of private charter flying by government executives, while condemning the abuses demonstrated by some of the high-profile cases that have come to light. And there were what appear to me to be clear abuses. But even the appearance of abuse is troubling from a cabinet secretary. Why should we be left wondering whether that trip to St. Simons Island in Georgia was legitimate business or if it was just an excuse to visit the private resort where the former secretary owns property? 

First of all, what do the government regulations say about flying private charters on government business? While most, if not all, government agencies have their own internal procedures for reviewing travel requests, travel regulations are standard throughout the federal government and apply to “an individual employed by an agency, regardless of status or rank.” So a secretary of an executive department is required to comply with the same regulations as everyone else in the federal government who is working and traveling. 

Of course the nature of their jobs will make an obvious difference in justifying travel by means other than commercial airline. According to the travel regulations, the agency must select the method of travel “most advantageous to the Government, when cost and other factors are considered.” In addition, the travel method selected must be by the “most expeditious means of transportation practicable and commensurate with the nature and purpose of [the employee’s] duties.” For routine transportation, “travel by common carrier is presumed to be the most advantageous method of transportation and must be used when reasonably available.”

So in the interests of efficiency, a cabinet secretary or other high-level official schedules multiple meetings or events to multiple destinations over a short period of time that would make commercial travel difficult if not impossible. That might be basis for justifying private charter. Officials should always disclose to the staff that’s making transportation arrangements, everything on the intinerary so that they can point out potential appearance problems, such as visiting your mountain estate or going on honeymoon. Even if an official arguably has legitimate government business at the destination, it looks bad. The same applies for political events mingled with government business.

But for those who know how much better it is to fly private for business—or really any trip—and who have entered government service as a multimillionaire or even billionaire, take a page from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s lesson plan. Pay for the charter trips yourself.