How Government Officials Fly — From the President to Your Local Representative
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With all attention on Washington, D.C. in light of the recent swearing-in of Donald Trump as the 45th president, we thought it’d be an interesting time to explore how government officials fly around the country and the world. The following information was gathered from congressional staffers, a congressional scheduler, a Navy admiral’s aide, my own experience as a government traveler for eight years and the rules and regulations from Congress and the Department of Defense governing official travel.
President and Vice President
It’s widely known that any time the president flies, it’s either aboard a Sikorsky VH-3D or VH-60N helicopter designated Marine One, or on a converted Boeing 747 designated Air Force One. These titles refer to the call sign of any aircraft the president is currently flying and do not refer to the tail number. Wherever the president travels on Air Force One, there’s a detachment with an Air Force C-5 following that has a Marine One helicopter packed in the cargo bay. This is so the president can utilize the helicopter for short trips in a foreign country or as a contingency plan.
When President Obama left the inauguration ceremony on January 20, he flew a Sikorsky VH-3D designated Executive One. It lifted him to Joint Base Andrews, where he boarded the presidential 747 designated SAM (Special Air Mission) 38000, referring to the tail number, for his departure flight to Palm Springs.
Whenever traveling in the National Capitol Region, the vice president is authorized to fly the same special “white top” helicopters the president utilizes, and they are designated Marine Two. When traveling elsewhere, the VP will usually utilize a C-32 jet, which is a modified Boeing 757 from the Presidential Airlift Group (PAG) stationed at Joint Base Andrews.
All presidential and vice presidential travel is coordinated through the White House Military Office (WHMO) located in the executive buildings next to the White House.
In 1996, the Committee on House Administration created the Members Representational Allowance (MRA), which is a single pot of money to allow members to operate their DC and district offices and support members in their official and representational duties. From this allowance, congressmen and women must use funds to travel on official business, as they may not accept money or in-kind services for official business. Appropriations for FY16 totaled roughly $500 million, of which about 4% was spent on official travel by all of the congressional offices.
The vast majority of Congressional members and their staff fly commercially in coach between Washington, D.C. and their districts. Although rules still allow for members to fly in first class or charter a plane, the majority want to appear to be good stewards of taxpayer money. In 2015, the Coach-Only Airfare for Capitol Hill (COACH) Act was introduced by Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, but was not allowed to be brought to vote by committee.
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.
The MRA is not the only means of funding congressmen and their travels. Foreign governments, the Department of Defense and their own campaign funds can pay for travel based on the purpose of each trip. For example, if the Navy League is bringing representatives to the shipyard to look at a new ship under construction, it very well may be funding the travel. All travel is subject to the House and Senate Ethics Committee and their respective rules.
One very solid perk of being a congressman is the free, premium parking at both Dulles and Reagan National Airport next to the terminals, as well as head-of-the-line privileges for security lines. That even beats TSA PreCheck.
Government Civilians and Military
For anyone wearing a uniform or a civilian in the government service (GS), a 1,548-page travel document called the Joint Travel Regulations (JTR) is the proverbial travel bible. The document runs through almost every possible travel scenario, and specifically lays out what a person of any rank or pay grade can and cannot do when it comes to official travel.
In layman’s terms, for the majority of domestic routes there is a contracted carrier between certain city pairs. You have to fly that carrier with a (usually) significantly discounted fare, and you have to buy an economy-class ticket using your government-issued Citibank card (which earns no points or rewards). For international routes, as long as a US-flagged carrier sells tickets for the route (either if the flight is operated on its own metal or it’s a codeshare agreement), you must book with the US airline.
A great example of this scenario is JetBlue winning the contract for official government travel to Bahrain over United Airlines, which had held that contract for a long time. JetBlue obviously doesn’t fly to the Middle East, but codeshare partner Emirates does. All government civilians and military flying to the Middle East on official travel from the US will now most likely be on an Emirates flight.
Flying in paid business class as military or as a GS is almost impossible, with a few exceptions like noted medical conditions and the rare instance where the cheapest economy ticket is more expensive than business class. Paid business-class tickets require written approval prior to booking.
High-Ranking Military and Civilians
Just because a military officer has become a general or admiral — or a civilian leader has entered the Senior Executive Service (SES) — does not mean the red carpet is always rolled out for them when it comes to air travel. The majority of admirals I’ve traveled with are right next to me in economy, though they can usually choose premium economy seats for free since they’re always on the road and have earned elite status.
Once they become very high-ranking — to the level of a three- or four-star flag officer or an assistant secretary of a cabinet level position — due to the value of their time, private military travel may be approved. The US Navy operates a fleet of C-37As, which are modified Gulfstream V models, that routinely carry the Chief of Naval Operations and other three- or four-star fleet admirals.
All travel at this level is highly scrutinized, with even admirals and generals requiring Secretary of Defense approval for use of these assets. The vast majority of these officials prefer to avoid unwanted limelight and happily sit on commercial aircraft in economy.
Frequent Flyer Miles and Benefits
Both in the Congressional travel rules and the JTR, the ability to earn and utilize frequent flyer miles and benefits is specifically stated as being acceptable. You can accept upgrades, use miles for upgrades, select premium seats and enjoy lounge access as long as it’s at no cost to the government. For many carriers, government fares book into full Y fares because of the flexibility required by government travelers and the government’s desire to avoid paying change and cancellation fees. This often equates to mega miles on some routes and carriers and easily upgradeable fares. The one exception is military fares on American Airlines, which are not upgrade-eligible.
However, there’s a big caveat to the great perks of full Y fares for those of us who love miles but travel courtesy of the government. That’s the inability to pick the airline you want to fly. Either General Services Administration (GSA) city-pair contracts or the cheapest price dictate the carrier you fly for any route. Short of flying the same route over and over (and even then, the contracted carrier can change), it’s difficult to be loyal to a single carrier and earn significant mileage or status.
The most common reason that senior DOD officials are relieved of their duties continues to be travel fraud. Members of Congress can also quickly find themselves with the wrong kind of attention if it becomes known that they spend taxpayer money frivolously on travel. Admittedly, the rules for government travel have become so complex that it’s often hard to know if what you’re doing is within the JTR — especially when traveling internationally.
Over the years, I’ve been impressed with how most senior-ranking officials avoid wasting taxpayer money on luxury for themselves. Unless you’re a four-star admiral, the president or vice president, don’t count on the government giving you a first-class travel experience.
Have you ever seen a government official on your flight?
Featured image courtesy of Justin Sullivan via Getty Images.
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