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Get Comfy in Coach

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Most private sector executives would be aghast at the notion of sitting with the air travelers in coach. It is assumed -- it is the cultural norm for many corporations -- that the leaders sit in business class. That's why they call it business class.

Many federal executives, especially political appointees doing a stint in public service, have long shared that assumption. If a vice president of a bank sits in business class, shouldn't an ambassador? If a multinational distributor's logistics chief gets first-class treatment, shouldn't an executive in charge of acquisition for a multibillion-dollar government agency? Industry executives often need the space in business class to work while they travel. Or they need to stretch out so they can be well rested for the major wheeling and dealing awaiting them at their destination. Is either point any less true just because a government leader's salary is paid by Uncle Sam?

Alas, political appointees, SESers and GS-15s, you'll now be encouraged to head to the back of the plane, to glance wistfully at the CEOs as they stretch their legs and you shuffle past to squeeze your carry-on underneath the seat in front of you in coach. If you're lucky, you'll get a slightly roomy emergency aisle seat.

Such is your traveling fate since a Jan. 8 memorandum from Clay Johnson, the Office of Management and Budget's deputy director for management, instructed agencies to restrict premium-class travel. His memorandum followed the recently passed fiscal 2008 omnibus appropriations bill funding the government, which reminded managers to heed federal travel regulations. That law follows several Government Accountability Office reviews that tallied up hundreds of millions of dollars in "unauthorized" and "unjustified" first-class and business-class air tickets.

In September 2007, GAO highlighted a number of instances in which the government could have saved thousands of dollars if managers had flown coach:

  • A member of the Postal Service Board of Governors flew first-class from Los Angeles to Washington for $2,200. A coach ticket would have cost $400.
  • A Foreign Agricultural Service executive flew from Washington to Hong Kong in business class for $6,900, while 11 other employees flew on the same flight back in coach for $1,400 each.
  • Another Foreign Agricultural Service executive flew first-class 10 times between Washington and Western Europe, racking up $62,000 in tickets that would have cost less than $9,000 in coach. The executive got a subordinate to authorize the travel.

A year earlier, GAO noted that the State Department, as well as other agencies, treats first-class travel as a morale-boosting perk. "The tone set by top State Department executives indicate that it treats premium-class as an employee benefit regardless of cost and federal law and regulation," GAO reported in September 2006. GAO's latest report called that approach into question across government.

Now, the jig is up. Human resources officials could come up with lots of reasons that executives and managers benefit from traveling in the front of the plane. But it doesn't matter. In this case, Congress and the White House don't want government to be more like business.

Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years and is now a National Journal staff correspondent.

 

Brian Friel is founder of One Nation Analytics, an independent research, analytics and consulting firm for the federal market.

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