Like the rail passes of the Gilded Age, are U.S. politicians being bought out by airlines through lucrative and exclusive travel benefits?
That’s what consumer advocate Christopher Elliott would have you think. The reality, however, is a bit more complicated.
In a Washington Post column, he writes:
[A]irlines allow members of Congress and their staff to book fully refundable fares at about the same rate their constituents pay for a highly restrictive nonrefundable ticket — a potential savings of hundreds of dollars or more per ticket.
That’s a true statement. And venerable consumer advocate Ralph Nader is up in arms about this.
Upon further investigation, though, Nader’s contention is a bit more nuanced.
Primarily, he seems to be adamant that frequent flyer miles are akin to cash back, making an interesting anaogly to argue why politicians should not receive miles:
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.
That’s a topic for a different post, but Elliott’s problem is not frequent flyer miles, but concern over refundable tickets costing the same as you and I pay for non-refundable fares.
Ultimately, he concludes:
Until Congress flies like the rest of us, we may never get regulations that put the passengers — and not the airlines — first.
Government Fares Save Taxpayers Money
Here’s the problem with Elliott’s argument: these are called YCA fares. Jointly, the U.S. Federal Government is the largest purchaser of airfare in the USA. YCA fares are akin to group discounts. YCAs are not just for politicians, but all federal government workers traveling on official business.
Furthermore, YCA fares are awarded to a single airline based upon city pair. For example, United might have LAX-IAD because it outbid American and Delta and offers non-stop service. Politicians wanting to travel on a YCA ticket between LAX-IAD must travel on United.
Finally, travel for politicians changes all the time. I witnessed that. If there were no negotiated discounts, politicians would be paying big money to either book at the very last-minute or pay multiple change fees. This negotiated system saves taxpayers money.
So-called “dedicated phone lines” certainly exist. But they exist for other high-value clients as well.
John Breyault from the National Consumers League stated:
Congress is getting a sweet deal from the airlines. Maybe the rest of America should get the same sweet deal.
Yes, maybe airline pricing and routes should be even more carefully regulated. Some sort of civl aeronautics board could be formed to regulate pricing and ensure that everyone paid the same price. That would certainly foster innovation and benefit consumers…
I’m not disputing that U.S. politicians take full advantage of travel perks made available to them (hello Scott Pruitt and Sheila Jackson Lee). But I do question whether YCA fares are somehow unfair or harmful.