Letter to Congress re: Airline industry influence

To: Members of Congress
From: Ralph Nader, Consumer Advocate
Paul Hudson, President, FlyersRights.org

We are writing in reference to the airline industry’s influence on members of Congress and how such influence may be manifested through gifts, discounts, perks, and VIP treatment. Such disclosure is critical because Congress wields major authority over the airlines.

According to the Congressional Research Service, approximately 4% of the Members Representational Allowance—totaling about $20 million—was spent on official travel in FY2016. (fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R40962.pdf). Chapter 3 of the House Ethics Manual, published by the House Committee on Ethics, addresses much but not all of Congressional travel policy. This document clearly states that government rates for airlines, hotels, and car rental companies are “available ONLY [emphasis ours] for official travel.” (ethics.house.gov/travel-information/official-travel-paid-official-funds)

However, the interpretation of these policies is often left to individual members. For example, the manual further notes: “Free travel, mileage, discounts, upgrades, coupons, etc. awarded at the sole discretion of a company as a promotional award may be used at the discretion of the Member or the Member’s employee.  The Committee [on House Administration] encourages the OFFICIAL [emphasis ours] use of these travel promotional awards wherever practicable.”

Members of Congress are effectively receiving a personal benefit of free air travel of at least 1-2% of the cost of their air travel expense paid for by US taxpayers.  So, for $20 million of government air travel, members receive at least $200,000 worth of tax-free personal air travel. If a government employee were to receive 1% cash for whatever the government paid to a vendor, it would certainly be classified as illegal; but because it’s in-kind, it has escaped ethics and anti-corruption laws.

As most members are weekly flyers, there is a symbiotic relationship they have with airlines that perhaps explains their unwillingness to rein in airline abuses and that gives this particular industry a special relationship with Congress not enjoyed by others.

In 2015, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) introduced H.R. 2210, the Coach-Only Airfare for Capitol Hill Act, which “would prohibit Members of Congress from using official funds from the Member Representational Allowance (MRA) to purchase first-class airline tickets while traveling for official Congressional duties.” (gosar.house.gov/news/documentsingle.aspx?DocumentID=1957) Upon introducing this legislation, Rep. Gosar cited a 2014 Washington Post article titled “First Class Travel for Lawmakers: A Smarmy Tale of Congressional Political Games,” that referenced members of Congress voting in favor of first-class travel at taxpayer expense. (www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2014/05/15/first-class-travel-for-lawmakers-a-smarmy-tale-of-congressional-political-games/)

In recent years, several conflicts have arisen between the airline industry and elected and senior government officials. Please note the following:

OPERATION OF MONEY-LOSING ROUTES:
In 2016, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey reached a non-prosecution agreement with United Airlines in connection with that carrier’s operation of a money-losing flight between Newark, N.J. and Columbia, S.C. (newsroom.united.com/2016-07-14-United-Airlines-Reaches-Non-Prosecution-Agreement-In-Port-Authority-Investigation) The flight was established to facilitate the private travel plans of the former chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees United’s dominant hub at Newark Liberty International Airport. (www.usatoday.com/story/news/2016/07/14/united-port-scandal/87094180/)

WAIVER OF FEES:
With few exceptions (e.g., Southwest Airlines), domestic carriers impose hefty fees and/or nonrefundability clauses on nearly all domestic ticket purchases. However, the House Ethics Manual states: “The Committee has also issued a general gift rule waiver permitting Members to make multiple reservations for official travel if offered by an airline.” (ethics.house.gov/travel-information/official-travel-paid-official-funds) While House ethics rules may allow such waivers, it’s unclear if certain airlines offer them to members of Congress while simultaneously not offering such waivers to the general public.

OTHER ISSUES:
Multiple reports from nonprofit organizations and media outlets in recent years have detailed many other VIP perks for members of Congress by the airline industry:

• In 2011, the Center for Public Integrity noted: “Staff schedulers oftentimes make reservations for members of Congress via dedicated phone lines that Delta and other major airlines have reportedly set up for Capitol Hill customers. Airlines also permit members to reserve seats on multiple flights but only pay for the trips they take.” (www.publicintegrity.org/2011/11/23/7495/congressional-perks-lawmakers-most-surprising-benefits)
• In 2011, Roll Call confirmed that double-booking policies were ubiquitous: “‘We get on every single flight,’ one congressional aide familiar with the process told Roll Call last month.” (www.rollcall.com/issues/57_43/Being-in-Congress-Has-Perks-209558-1.html)
• In 2013, The Motley Fool noted: “What’s really unique is that lawmakers are afforded the ability by airlines to book themselves on multiple flights without being charged multiple times because of their very liquid schedules.” (www.fool.com/investing/general/2013/10/20/10-perks-congress-has-that-you-dont.aspx)
• In 2017, ThePointsGuy.com noted: “Given that members’ time is rather valuable, a staffer told me that one senator will tell staffers to book him refundable seats on the 6pm, 7pm, and 8pm flights back to his district each Thursday so he can have a more flexible schedule.” (thepointsguy.com/2017/01/how-government-officials-fly/)
• In 2011, FrequentlyFlying.com cited similar reports: “Delta Air Lines has upgraded several of Georgia’s current and former politicians with Gold, Platinum, and even Diamond Medallion status [in the SkyMiles frequent flyer program].” (frequentlyflying.boardingarea.com/delta-air-lines-granting-elite-status-to-top-georgia-elected-officials/)

In light of these matters, we are writing to request that you share information that should be public on whether airlines, airport authorities, and/or government agencies have provided you or your staff with favors and privileges not provided to the general public, including frequent flyer rewards status and the amount of free personal air travel accumulated or used at government and taxpayer expense. We have detailed such privileges below.  Please share what your office has accepted and declined.

PRIVILEGES GRANTED BY AIRLINES:
• Operating flights specifically for your convenience
• Intentionally delaying or rescheduling flights for your convenience
• Ticket discounts
• Complimentary tickets
• Complimentary upgrades to premium economy, business, or first classes
• Complimentary amenities (meals, drinks, inflight entertainment, etc.)
• Complimentary elite status in frequent flyer programs
• Waivers of ticketing fees for changes, rebooking, refundability, etc.
• Waivers of ancillary fees for checked baggage or other services
• Access to airport lounges
• Priority boarding/disembarking
• VIP escorts
• Other amenities or perks

PRIVILEGES GRANTED BY AIRPORT AUTHORITIES AND/OR GOVERNMENT AGENCIES:

• Complimentary and/or VIP parking at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, Washington Dulles International Airport, and/or other facilities
• Expedited clearance through U.S. Transportation Security Administration airport security processing
• Expedited clearance through U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing
• Expedited clearance through U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services processing
• Other amenities or perks

Please notify us if you have any questions or additional comments. Thank you for your assistance. May we hear from you by Monday, June 4, 2018 to avoid receiving repeated requests and petitions?

Thank you.

Ralph Nader, Consumer Advocate

Paul Hudson, President, FlyersRights.org

SOURCES:

U.S. Congressional Research Service; “Members’ Representational Allowance: History and Usage;” September 27, 2017; (fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R40962.pdf)

U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Ethics; “Official Travel Paid With Official Funds;” (ethics.house.gov/travel-information/official-travel-paid-official-funds)

U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Standards of Official Conduct; “House Ethics Manual;” 2008 Edition; (ethics.house.gov/sites/ethics.house.gov/files/documents/2008_House_Ethics_Manual.pdf)

Rep. Paul Gosar; “Rep. Gosar Introduces Bipartisan Legislation to Prohibit Members of Congress from Flying First Class on the Taxpayer Dime;” May 1, 2015; (gosar.house.gov/news/documentsingle.aspx?DocumentID=1957)

Washington Post; “First Class Travel for Lawmakers: A Smarmy Tale of Congressional Political Games;” May 15, 2014; (www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2014/05/15/first-class-travel-for-lawmakers-a-smarmy-tale-of-congressional-political-games/)

The Center for Public Integrity; “Congressional Perks: Lawmakers; Most Surprising Benefits;” November 23, 2011; (www.publicintegrity.org/2011/11/23/7495/congressional-perks-lawmakers-most-surprising-benefits)

Roll Call; “Being in Congress Has Perks;” October 17, 2011; (www.rollcall.com/issues/57_43/Being-in-Congress-Has-Perks-209558-1.html)

The Hill; “Business Travel Coalition: Lawmakers Advocate ‘Mother of All Subsidies’ for Delta, United, and American Airlines;” May 22, 2015; (thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/economy-budget/242863-lawmakers-advocate-mother-of-all-subsidies-for-delta)

USA Today; “United to Pay $2.25M in Newark Scandal;” July 14, 2016; (www.usatoday.com/story/news/2016/07/14/united-port-scandal/87094180/)

United Airlines; “United Airlines Reaches Non-Prosecution Agreement in Port Authority Investigation;” July 14, 2016; (newsroom.united.com/2016-07-14-United-Airlines-Reaches-Non-Prosecution-Agreement-In-Port-Authority-Investigation)

The Motley Fool; “10 Perks Congress Has That You Don’t;” October 20, 2013; (www.fool.com/investing/general/2013/10/20/10-perks-congress-has-that-you-dont.aspx)

The Points Guy.com; “How Government Officials Fly—From the President to Your Local Representative;” January 23, 2017; (thepointsguy.com/2017/01/how-government-officials-fly/)

View from the Wing; “It’s Good to Be the King: The Special Travel Perks Enjoyed by the Political Class;” February 18, 2015; (viewfromthewing.boardingarea.com/2015/02/18/good-king-special-travel-perks-enjoyed-political-class/)

ViewFromTheWing.com; “Is It Wrong That Members of Congress Get Special Treatment from the Airlines?;” May 29, 2015; (viewfromthewing.boardingarea.com/2015/05/29/is-it-wrong-that-members-of-congress-get-special-treatment-from-the-airlines/)

Bloomberg Businessweek; “The Pampered World of Congressional Air Travel;” April 30, 2013; (www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2013-04-30/the-pampered-world-of-congressional-air-travel)

The Hill; “Congress to Lose VIP Parking Spots at National Airport;” April 26, 2017; (thehill.com/policy/transportation/330667-congress-to-lose-vip-parking-spots-at-reagan-airport-this-summer)

FrequentlyFlying.com; “Delta Air Lines Granting Elite Status to Top Georgia Elected Officials;” June 21, 2011; (frequentlyflying.boardingarea.com/delta-air-lines-granting-elite-status-to-top-georgia-elected-officials/)

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