A study by the Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, addressed this issue in September 2007.
The GAO concluded that at least $146 million was spent on "improper first- and business-class travel government-wide" between July 1, 2005, and June 30, 2006. It arrived at this number by obtaining billing information from government travel charge-card databases operated by Bank of America, Citibank, JP Morgan Chase and U.S. Bank. The audit focused on executive branch agencies and wholly owned government corporations and excluded travel by the judicial and legislative branches.
The rules defining justified premium air travel are complicated, but generally speaking, agencies can provide business class travel in circumstances such as when an individual has a physical disability that is certified by a medical professional or when a flight is to or from a destination outside the continental United States, exceeds 14 hours and is taken without a rest stop en route or at destination.
GAO researchers selected what they described as a statistically valid sample of 96 premium-class flight purchases with a price tag of $391,000. These purchases received close scrutiny.
All told, about two-thirds of the trips were either "not properly authorized, not properly justified, or both," the GAO found. This percentage was then projected onto the universe of federal premium travel billings, which was $230 million over the time period studied. Adjusting slightly downward as a hedge against statistical error, the GAO concluded that $146 million of the $230 million spent on premium flights was unjustified.
If you trust GAO's sampling and overall methodology — and we have no reason to doubt it — then Newsmax's presentation of the data seems pretty accurate. We only had two quibbles:
• The GAO's methodology doesn't delve into the question of the employee's motives when seeking a premium-class flight, so we think "refusal" is too strong a word for Newsmax to use when describing how the federal employees reacted to the idea of flying coach.
• The GAO noted that the $230 million spent on premium-class flights accounted for less than 1 percent of the cost of all federal flights during the period.
On balance, we rate the statement Mostly True.
Louis Jacobson, Times Staff Writer
"The refusal of many federal employees to fly coach costs taxpayers $146 million annually."
Newsmax, a conservative newsmagazine, in an e-mail pitch to potential subscribers