Airline Elite Upgrades Become Grist for the Republican Presidential Primaries

The Washington Post runs a piece implying that Ron Paul wastes taxpayer dollars on his own travel.

And I agree that taxpayers ought not to be on the hook to fly Members back and forth to their districts at will, that’s the standard practice.

The crux of the piece turns on Paul buying flexible government fares which are eligible for confirmed upgrades based on Paul’s status in the Continental Onepass program, so they lead with Ron Paul “flying first class on dozens of taxpayer-funded flights to his home state.”

What they don’t say, of course, is Ron Paul was buying first class airfare, because he wasn’t. And they acknowledge at the end that Members of Congress buying flexible tickets is fairly standard.

The Post contends that by buying government fares rather than searching on his own for cheaper tickets, that Paul was wasting money. But the analysis seems more an indictment of government fares generally than about any particular member’s travel habits. I won’t pass judgment in this post on the need for flexible, refundable tickets, but rather pass this on as another example of either media that doesn’t ‘get’ travel or of media using the complicated world of travel to mislead a public that doesn’t ‘get’ travel.

Seems like there’s no story here, at least not the story that the Post wants to tell. What would be interesting is a broader analysis of government fares, whether the government saves money paying a premium for flexible tickets (albeit still at a discount relative to what those tickets would cost the average consumer) versus buying cheaper tickets without that flexibility and incurring change fees.

It would also be an interesting story, to go from there to the question of government perks, whether those setting the rules are in fact gaming the system to make their travel more comfortable while not having to be transparent about that. Ted Kennedy famously saved two jobs at US Airways several years ago, the individuals working ‘special services’ at Washington’s National airport, responsible for giving him special attention. Delta comps elite status to favored politicians (the Governor of Georgia gets Diamond status, the Lt. Governor only gets Platinum). And Members of Congress get their own free close-in parking at National airport as well.

But Ron Paul’s use of government fares is simply an example of how most of Congress travels, and much of the government, though the Speaker of the House gets a military aircraft rather than flying commercial. How this squares with Congressman Paul’s spurning of congressional pensions and various other perks is, of course, left to the reader to decide.

(HT: Dan R.)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Can you provide more information about the Kennedy bit? Could not find any more details on google

  2. I read the article quite differently than you. It clearly says, “Paul’s staff regularly booked him in first class on flights when tickets were purchased, according to expense records. ”

    It also draws a difference between when they purchased a First Class ticket (which it suggests was done 30-odd times) and an additional 4 RT + 2 OW where it was upgrade-eligible but expense records wouldn’t show it.

    It’s not about flexible government fares vs. regular fares, to me that is a separate issue. But the article seems quite clear, they purchased first class at booking.

    It also calls out Michelle Bachmann for refusing to provide the same transparency / accountability that Ron Paul did, but that is a different issue. Let’s stay away from that for now.

  3. As it happens, you can lookup all government contract fares here:

    In many cases, the unrestricted government fare is competitive with standard economy tickets. In some cases, it is even lower. i.e. ORD-FLL for $138 is far better than the 300-500 usually seen on AA (or Southwest from MDW). $118 for ORD-LGA seems in line with the usual $100-200 each way…

    While I dont love paying for members to fly whenever they want, the prices they charge the taxpayers are not really all that bad.

  4. @AS re-read the article — he booked into confirmed first class on fully flexible government fares, he did not purchase first class tickets. You’re falling into the trap that the articule is laying for you, trying to imply something that isn’t going on here, it’s clear Paul was getting elite upgrades confirmed at booking on full fare tickets most of the time.

  5. @Tyler it wasn’t legislatoin, it was Kennedy personally intervening with US Airways so that they did not cut the positions, this was about 8 or 9 years ago, I think I may have even blogged it at the time.

  6. I am a low-level federal employee who travels fairly often. For most of my employment, I have been *required* to buy tickets at the negotiated government rate. Sometimes this rate is better, but sometimes this rate has far exceeded the commercial rate (for example, $1600 instead of $400 to Hawaii). I have also been required to buy the slightly more expensive refundable tickets (so that the taxpayers are not paying for a flight I don’t take if my schedule changes at the last minute.)

    Recently, my agency started using a new booking engine (Govtrip) which allows us to select a lower priced commercial rate if it’s available. (But we still get a red flag on our voucher and have to justify it). However, I don’t believe that all of the federal government is using this system. If Congress is on one of the old systems, Paul probably didn’t have much choice.

    I am no fan of Ron Paul and I would probably seek asylum in Canada if he won the presidency. However, I agree with you, it doesn’t sound like he has actually bought first class tickets or done anything wrong. There are other stories here – (1) about whether taxpayers should pay for Congressional tickets home and(2) about the federal government system of contracted fares.

  7. For those of us familiar with the frequent flyer world, this is a very interesting story — and one for which a correction (or at least “clarification”) is perhaps appropriate.

    First, I’m trying to understand exactly what tickets Paul bought. As a CO plat myself, I’m familiar with their upgrade structure. But I’m unfamiliar with which “bucket” gov’t fares are put into. Are they something like “M” fares which are upgradeable in advance, subject to capacity controls (unlike some cheaper fares which are upgradeable in OnePass’s 5-day elite window, but which are a roll-of-the-dice as far as space being available).

    Assuming Paul bought the “normal” gov’t fares, it seems pretty outrageous that the AP (and this is the AP’s reporting, not the Washington Post’s) is making an “issue” out of it. Logic would state that gov’t officials SHOULD fly on gov’t negotiated fares — much like you’d expect corporate execs to fly on corporate-negotiated fares. And the gov’t is known to get some pretty good rates.

    For instance, it appears that the fare Paul would have used to fly from DCA to IAH on CO is $239 ow. For a fully changeable fare, I don’t think there’s a travel manager in this country who would think that’s excessive. Sure, it may be higher than the AVERAGE fare in that market, but most of the people travelling are on leisure, not business. I think it is wholly unrealistic to expect a member of Congress to buy inflexible advance purchase fares even if, perhaps. it could save him a few bucks if they adhered to all the restrictions. Congressmen are busy people; I can’t fathom how it could be in the nation’s interest to make them buy advance purchase fares limiting their scheduling flexibility when these flexible gov’t fares are entirely reasonable in price.

    If these are indeed the facts, Paul is entitled to an apology by the AP since what we have here seems to be an ill-informed hatchet job.

  8. Has anyone in the GAO done a study to see if refundable fares for government employees actually saves any money? It shouldn’t be too hard to run a test program for a year or two, see what the refundable and nonrefundable fares were at the time of purchase, and then check back a year later to see what schedule changes were made, if any, and the associated costs under each policy.

  9. Disclosure: I am a Federal employee.
    The contracted fares do save the government money. If you refer to the link to the GSA website above, you will see there are two major types of Government fares: CA and YCA. CA fares book into a discount fare bucket (G for AA). YCA fares book into full Y. Either fare can be changed without a fee, thus, for those with ever changing schedules, these contracted fares do save the government money. Additionally, since the majority of travel is last minute, these fares are substantially cheaper than purchasing a publically available Y fare.

    I am based out of DFW so our contract carrier ia AA. Elites are not allowed confirm automatically confirm upgrades on a government Y fare. However, I believe elites can use stickers on either fare, although I have not tried.

  10. First, I have no problem with the government covering the cost of transportation between DC and his district; that’s the same as I would expect from any employer where the employee has work locations in two cities.

    My read of the article, as a frequent flyer, was that Paul wasn’t buying first class tickets, but was paying more for coach tickets that were upgradable. It said “Paul chose not to buy the cheaper economy tickets at a fraction of the price because they aren’t refundable or as flexible for scheduling, his congressional staff said.”

    Now, there are reasons at times to buy flexible tickets, but for me, it comes down to intent. If an employee is buying more expensive tickets just because they are upgradable, when the job’s standard of travel says to fly coach, then that’s wrong. Of course, maybe it’s easy for me to say that as an elite on AA, where all fares are upgradable.

  11. @hsw25: I think AA is the only major carrier that doesn’t allow comp upgrades on gov’t fares, even for elites. UA however excludes YCA and _CA fares from most special promotions (e.g., fly 3 RTs in Jan-Mar and get XX bonus RDM, etc)

    Generally the GSA City Pair is, per the JTR or FTR, required use for government travel unless the order approving official (AO) approves in advance the use of a non-contract fare (including using a non-refundable fare). I don’t know if Congressmen are bound by the FTR or not.

    The whole premise in requiring use of the CityPair fares is that the airlines agree to better pricing in exchange for a more or less guaranteed business (for that city pair). It’s similar to what in other areas of gov’t procurement is known as a Requirements Contract. Even if on a given trip I can find a lower fare, such a piecemeal approach is discouraged since at some point it would undermine the government-wide deal struck with the airlines.

    In most agencies it’s not often that a non-refundable fare is approved since mission requirements can change – the change fees would soon defeat any savings. The ability to budget for the whole fiscal year – knowing the fares to your project team’s destinations is basically set – is also important.

    I just don’t see the issue here except a political hit piece on Ron Paul (I have no opinion on him one way or another personally)

  12. When Nancy Pelosi was Speaker of the House and had the military aircraft her use and dollars spent on use to fly herself and her family were huge. John Boehner stressed that he would fly commercial. This is nothing more than someone trying to make Ron Paul look bad.

  13. Working for the government has its perks–I can’t tell you how many times I have booked government rates at hotels, even when not on official business. While I am no longer employed for them, I still have the card which enables me to receive the (usually) lower, government hotel rates all the time when I travel.

    Oh, and my name’s not really George.

  14. It wouldn’t be unreasonable for the government to cover a paid first class ticket for a member of congress, plus an aide, when traveling.

    Fun as it may be to poke at our leaders’ t&e reports, this is not the principal issue facing the country. Any attention focused on this is wasted, at best. If all members of congress took a pledge to walk everywhere and consume only bread and water, it wouldn’t make a dent it the country’s finances.

  15. I can’t speak for the old Continental, but for UA, even when my govt ticket is Y fare, which it is usually not, I still do not receive an instant upgrade because it is not considered “full fare” by UA because it is priced similar to a non-refundable ticket available to the general public.

    Now while the regulations permit the approving official to authorize a non-refundable ticket at the lowest fare that is available to the general public, as one of the posts pointed out, it is usually not encouraged, extremely cumbersome, and more often than not more expensive than the GSA contract fare.

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