Is It Wrong That Members of Congress Get Special Treatment from the Airlines?

In dismissing Members of Congress signing a letter of support for US airlines against the Middle East carriers, the Business Travel Coalition’s Kevin Mitchel writes in The Hill,

Members are allowed to double and triple book flights home from Washington and pay nothing week in and week out for multiple changes while, in contrast, ordinary citizens can pay hundreds of dollars to make just a single flight change.

Airlines cultivate a cozy relationship with members through that practice as well as special reservations desks that begin the very exceptional treatment members receive throughout the entire travel experience.

I’ve explained this before, of course. And I’m not sure exactly how I feel about it.

  • Government fares are refundable and changeable anyway. That’s not inherently coddling of legislators in exchange for favors. The government is a huge travel buyer and negotiates this.

  • Members of Congress do get special accommodations, though, and dedicated assistance in holding space on a number of flights. Then again, I’ve been double booked my American Airlines club agents on a not infrequent basis (during irregular operations).

Mitchell could have highlighted the Chairman of the House Transportation Committee dating one of the airline industry’s top lobbyists (and his staff director formerly serving as an industry lobbyist, and his chief of staff being married to one). There’s little question that legislators bend towards US airline lobbyists.

And Delta, for instance, comps elite status to key politicians.

Members of Congress get special parking at Washington’s National airport as well. There are perks that the rest of us don’t get, because we don’t exercise the power of the state.

While I don’t think the VIP handling is appropriate (though it is understandable, because our leaders exercise so much power over heavily regulated businesses like the airlines) I don’t think avoidance of change fees is all that significant an issue — since it stems from the nature of a government fare.

On the other hand, American Airlines is pretty aggressive about cancelling out held (unticketed space) which duplicates or otherwise conflicts with other reserved space — at least for me. Double and triple booking, and not having those reservations cancelled, is a useful and special perk. It’s not one I can get that upset over, however.

There are many things wrong about the US airlines’ case against the Middle East carriers. That the US government is in the tank for them because they get to double book reservations probably isn’t one of those things. Indeed, I still predict that the US won’t act to substantively limit service by Emirates, Etihad and Qatar (and thereby limit consumer choice and raise prices) because there are higher national security-related priorities for the US government to worry about for which they need the help of the UAE and Qatar.

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. Well, I AM sure how I feel about it:
    They should get a coach ticket and pay for any upgrade out of personal funds. Any change fees … same. I am sure we all agree that Congress is “broken”. Well, if they can’t live like the rest of us then we need people who can.

    Any airline employee giving them better treatment should have to pay for that out of his/her salary – or face a bribery count.

  2. @frank – I shared your indignance when I saw former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison sitting in F in an outbound from DFW. Special treatment, I assumed. Fancy pants upgrade.

    But then I got to thinking. While serving as a senator from TX, how many AA segments/miles must she have accrued? Back/forth TX to DC over and over, year after year. Gazillions, I suppose.

    So even if one of these pols buys, as you suggest, a cheapo economy ticket, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they were upgraded to F based on status they fairly earned.

  3. Members of law enforcement are allegedly getting special treatments from prostitutes . and if they are NOT getting it scandals ensure, like with SS in Colombia ( pardon an acronim, somehow looks unfortunate). So why MC should have less perks?

  4. “Indeed, I still predict that the US won’t act to substantively limit service by Emirates, Etihad and Qatar (and thereby limit consumer choice and raise prices) because there are higher national security-related priorities for the US government to worry about for which they need the help of the UAE and Qatar.”

    Actually, it’s the other way around. The Gulf states are terrified of the Iranians, and the US military presence in the region is what keeps them at bay. Their leaders were just at Camp David trying to convince Obama to build them a missile defense shield (no go, apparently).

    I predict the US government will act but only to limit fifth freedom routes to Europe like the Emirates JFK-MXP. That’s all the US (and EU) airlines are really worried about anyways. It’ll be spun as a reasonable negotiated compromise, but in fact the US airlines will have gotten all they really wanted. Ask for the sun, settle for the moon.

    BTW, that’s why James Hogan’s buying stakes in second-tier EU carriers and building a virtual alliance around Etihad. JFK-MXP-DXB flown by Emirates is a fifth-freedom route; JFK-MXP-AUH flown by Alitalia connecting to Etihad isn’t.

  5. @Frank,

    You are as ignorant as you are quick to speak.

    Members of Congress are as subject to the Federal Travel Regulations as much as a GS-7 clerk at the Department of Education. Amongst other things, this gives them access to (often nicely priced) refundable fares when they are on official travel, including regularly returning to the districts which elected them.

    I would think this would often permit accrual of decent status and the benefits which entail. It is difficult to tell when an upgrade has been provided on account of patronage and when it has been provided due to status.

    I do have two personal experiences to report.

    (1) whenever it was that UA went from “sticker” type upgrades to unlimited upgrades, when I was 1K, I observed a lady at ORD, waiting for an ORD-DCA, wearing a knee to ankle cast. I had heaps of soon to be obsolete 500 mile upgrades, and asked the gate agent to apply my 500 mile UG’s to upgrade her. Turns out she was a member of Congress and one whose political positions I loathe. Clearly she was prepared to travel in Y.

    (2) later, on another ORD-DCA, I was enjoying a UG to F when the FA in F informed the F cabin that a VIP was to be on and that compensation was available for someone to give up their seat. I like compensation, but I preferred to see what would go down. Another passenger gave up his seat and soon thereafter a senator whose appointment to the Senate was so controversial that he had no hope of being elected thereafter took the newly emptied F seat.

    So, perhaps, UA is willing to provide perks to those who regulate them.

  6. I regularly see my congressman flying home in coach on Friday nights, enough so that he must have EXP (it’s 4500 miles r/t). Since he is riding in coach, clearly he’s not getting some VIP perk.

  7. Having worked on Capitol Hill for several different Members of Congress, I felt the need to comment.

    While I completely agree with the comments about conflicts of interest, etc, it is important for readers to understand that very nature of the Congressional schedule is completely in Flux. A member’s scheduler has to book them on 2-3 different flights because they may not know when last votes will be called and may need to be back in the district that night. If they miss votes to get on a flight they booked, their opponents will hit them for skipping votes. If they miss an event in the district to stay for last votes and miss their flight, their opponents will say they have ‘gone Washington and don’t care for the folks back home.’

    I can assure you most of these members just want to get on with their lives and get home when they’re done and holding seats on 2-3 flights is not a perk as much as it is necessary for their jobs.

  8. @thomas for what it’s worth that’s exactly the situation that many business travelers find themselves in. I don’t think this is inappropriate because the government negotiates flexible tickets in addition to deep discounts. But justifying it because ‘people don’t understand the difficult schedules of a Member of Congress’ completely misses the point.

  9. @Thomas – I agree with Gary. Tell me a single business person who wouldn’t like to have that same perk. Oh, my meeting time got changed, let’s see if I can get home a little bit earlier to my family or maybe get back to my office a little earlier so I can get some work done – nope, no can do without paying a change fee. A better argument could be made that I don’t want my congressman using my tax dollars to fly on a last minute fare. But, silly me, not many seem all that concerned about how they spend my tax dollars.

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