Should Members of Congress Be Allowed to Fly First Class?

@pcpontificates tweets about a proposed bill to make Members of Congress fly coach.

Members of Congress fly 2x+ a week. They should get free elite upgrades. Still, this bill is a stunt. cc:@garyleff

Let me first say that I think the bill is pure grandstanding. It’s a legislative fix in search of a problem.

When I read reports on the bill about Members of Congress having to sit in coach, I cringed — surely the authors understand that frequent flyers get upgrades?

And it turns out it isn’t as idiotic as it sounds on face, with Members of Congress being required to turn down elite upgrades and finding it harder to work inflight.

The bill applies standard federal travel rules for agencies which allow for premium cabin travel under specific circumstances.

Under the proposed bill (.pdf), 41 CFR §301-10.123 (“When may I use other than coach-class airline accommodations?”) applies.

Funds described in subsection (a) may be used for airline accommodations which are not coach-class accommodations for an individual described in subsection (a) if the use of the funds for such accommodations would be permitted under sections 301–10.121 through 301–10.125 of title 41 of the Code of Federal Regulations if the individual were an employee of an agency which is subject to chapter 301 of such title.

Reasons that justify premium cabin travel include medical conditions, flight length, security considerations, as well as the possibility that premium cabin travel is less expensive than coach or the only thing available.

And frequent flyer upgrades are specifically permitted.

You may upgrade to other than coach-class accommodations at your personal expense, including through redemption of frequent flyer benefits.

So now you know — the bill with one of the most absurd names of this Congressional session, the “If Our Military Has to Fly Coach Then so Should Congress Act,” doesn’t actually require Members of Congress to fly coach.

It would just forbid Members of Congress to pay for the big front seat. Unless they really needed it.

Now we can turn to important political issues like:

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. Just an anecdote, but when I worked for the Federal government in the area of air pollution abatement and control, my totally healthy immediate boss claimed he had been shot in the buttocks during the Korean War and used that to justify first class travel. Everyone knew it was a joke, but nobody challenged it.

  2. I don’t see how it matters whether the purchaser is a business or a govt agency or a non-profit or a church or a gang. If the flyer is a frequent flyer, they should be entitled to frequent-flyer upgrades. I suspect that the Congressman introducing this bill are SHOW-BOATING. Just a ploy to pose as a pork-cleaner-upper to the folks back home.

  3. I’ve seen Senator John McCain flying in coach before. They do allow him to board during the first class boarding (which may be more security than anything), but it appears he books in coach and sits out the upgrade cycle like the rest of us.

  4. This is a ridiculous proposal.

    First, and as noted above, regulation already addresses it.

    The only question is whether members of Congress should be permitted to accept upgrades, whether through ordinary upgrade queues or otherwise.

    And by otherwise, I recall an ORD-DCA where FC was full with whatever combination of purchased and upgrades. As the door was closing, the FA’s sought a volunteer to give up his seat in F for a voucher. This occurred and before you know it a then seated Senator boards and sits in the F seat. Obviously an upgrade granted outside ordinary means.

  5. Why should members of country fly first class when they really ought to be flying by the seat of their pants with a good swift kick from the taxpayer’s boot. –grin–

  6. Looks like the darned NSA changed “members of congress” to “members of country”

  7. @jfhscott

    Ha! I have seen the same exact thing from DCA to ORD, except it was a congressman not senator.

  8. I’ve now read the text, and it seems not to alter the existing FTR.

    All it does is to prohibit use of appropriate funds to purchase higher than coach, which is already the baseline rule, subject to limited exceptions, in the FTR. No limitations on unpaid upgrades.

    Congratulations to Congressman Ruiz for writing a statue which recapitulates already existing law.

  9. My friend worked for a member of congress who would have her staff book three flights for her whenever she had to travel. She would take the one where she got upgraded and just let her budget absorb the cost of the cancellation penalties for the other two.

  10. I agree with the proposed changes (excluding long haul international flights). However, I’d be shocked to see a member purchasing a first class ticket. With that said, the system is rigged (in my opinion). Members have the option of purchasing their own airfare (directly or 3rd party) or utilizing the GSA city pair systems. Most members use the GSA city pair system due to: (1) free changes and cancellations and (2) shot at discounted Y fare class. The member then goes through the elite upgrade process.

    The only difference between the current system and the proposal is that the member can currently purchase a premium ticket with justification. However, almost all federal employees can purchase a premium ticket with proper justification. In my case, I purchase a Y class ticket and apply my GPU or use miles to upgrade (very reasonable on Y class).

    Regardless of the details. I feel that government employees and members should be permitted to fly business class on long haul international flights. Honestly, I am sick of either being in economy or paying for my upgrade, especially when I am forced to be very productive for a 1-week trip when it takes my 24-hours to get to my destination. I don’t think buying a business class ticket for an elected member or high ranking government employee is a bad thing. I won’t bore you all with the details, but in certain cases the cost difference between a Y class r/t using GSA citypairs and a discounted business class ticket is very little.

  11. I can agree with the idea that they shouldn’t use tax payer funds for domestic first class or business class seats. They should be able to get elite upgrades of course. They should not allow first class seating for so called “medical conditions” or the first class cabin will start looking the handicap parking at Wal-mart.
    On international flights congressional members (not support cast) should be able to pay for at least business class to ensure that they can work properly while traveling overseas.
    I also think that if more members of congress had to fly in cattle class then they might put some controls in place for seat pitch.

  12. I am kind of surprised at the discussions of business being done onboard. I’ve travelled quite a bit. The closest to business discusions on board was a discussion between to 1% ceo/coo types as to whether there would be a greeter at the gate at FRA. Evidentally, major corporations really pay mega salaries to idiots that can’t find their way out of an airport.

  13. What’s sad is the statement that “Members of Congress fly 2x+ a week.”

    Our government would be far less dysfunctional if members of congress actually stayed in Washington on many weekends and built relationships with each other, instead of fleeing to their districts each weekend because they have to raise money. A sad state of affairs.

  14. Ruiz is my CM…yes really. Was going to contact his office to urge him to vote no on House bill to clarify air fares ie: let airlines hide taxes and surcharges until late in booking process rather than show all in prices up front. Now I have 2 things to discuss.

  15. How often do members Congress fly on GSA-negotiated YCA fares? Limiting the availability of legislators to buy those fares – which often upgrade easily, or even automatically, into domestic F – might actually save some taxpayer dollars. YCA fares are much, much cheaper than normal Y fares, but they’re still almost always quite a bit pricier than deep discount economy fares booked more than a week in advance.

  16. This is just political grandstanding, just like most of the BS that Congress does. Totally meaningless and unnecessary, since the situation is already covered by regulations, as Gary noted.

  17. And what makes you think the airlines won’t award Concierge, Key, or whatever privilege designation that is available to influence their favorite pols, so that they are always upgraded. Still at our expense

  18. @Ryan

    Given that most members of Congress tend to travel on Sunday/Monday and late Thursday/Friday, I am not certain that YCA fares (capacity controlled refundable fares) will be available to them.

  19. I used to travel to DC a lot, and have frequently ridden in first with my congressman or senator (though the last leg was usually a CRJ200). While I’m at the opposite end of the political spectrum and would love to see them forced to stay home, in fairness I have to say that they were always working during most of the flight. I also don’t begrudge them the same chance to decompress that I get at the end of a busy week.

  20. Last time I was on a saw a senator on a flight out of DCA they didn’t even have exit row. Their seatmate didn’t recognize them at first but they ended up having a long conversation about EAS service to various cities in the senator’s state.

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