New Defense reimbursement rule has travel contractors worried

A new Defense Department travel reimbursement rule that has been widely misinterpreted has some government travel contractors concerned. The new rule, which took effect Feb. 1, allows military personnel to be reimbursed for official travel arranged by agents who aren't official government contractors. Reimbursement is limited to what the cost of travel would have been if arrangements were made through an agency's Commercial Travel Office (CTO). Such offices are operated by travel contractors. The Per Diem, Travel and Transportation Allowance Committee, which sets travel policy for the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard, as well as commissioned officers of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency and the Public Health Service, wrote the rule. According to Bill Tirrell, travel and transportation branch chief for the committee, the new policy was put in place to close a gap in the Joint Federal Travel Regulations that kept service members from being reimbursed when they had to make travel plans on short notice and could not access a CTO. Civilian workers were not bound by this rule. "The services decided that having their civilian and military personnel treated differently under the same circumstances was unfair," Tirrell said. For example, when Hurricane Andrew hit Homestead Air Force base in Homestead, Fla., access to CTOs was limited. "There are instances where there truly are no ways to get to the CTOs," Tirrell said. Joe Good, who owns CI Travel in Norfolk, Va., and counts Wright Patterson, Langley and Seymour Johnson Air Force bases among his customers, said the new rule "was intended to deal with a problem that probably occurs less than one-half of 1 percent of the time. It was done to address emergency conditions." But some military personnel have apparently interpreted the rule to mean that they could bypass the CTO and book travel arrangements through whatever agent or service they chose. "We have begun to receive a number of inquiries from the field, and, by all indications, the field is interpreting this as a license to go out on,, etc., for their official travel arrangements," wrote Maj. Karen Corrente, chief of Air Force travel, transportation and benefits policy, in a recent memo circulated at Air Force bases. "This is not an 'OK' to self-procure transportation. CTO use is still mandatory." But Corrente's memo goes on to say, "If a member chooses to arrange transportation through a non-contract travel agent or common carrier direct purchase, they will now be treated like civilians and be reimbursed up to the government cost to procure the transportation." The apparent contradiction in the memo has some federal travel agents concerned. "It sounds like if you buy your ticket without using the CTO you will be reimbursed," said Patricia Stout, owner of The Alamo Travel Group in San Antonio. "I think the memo is not crafted properly." Duncan Farrell, president of the Society of Government Travel Professionals said it is unfortunate that the new reimbursement policy was not communicated well, but insists that putting the new policy in context will eliminate any confusion. "This is strictly a reimbursement expense issue, not a change in procedure," said Farrell. Tirrell said the burden lies with the different military services to communicate the correct policy to service members. "We have now placed with the command the requirement to ensure that their people are trained to use the CTOs, and as they do for so many other things, take responsibility for their actions if their employees or service members fail to do that," Tirrell said. "If the system of CTO use fails it will be because commands do not enforce the contract requirements."