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.
> Read More: I’m Disgusted by First Class Travel for Government Officials
> Read More: Congresswoman Poaches First Class Seat, Accuses Victim of Racism
You would expect the largest single buyer of air travel to negotiate a good deal on air travel.
At the same time the US airline industry is one of the most heavily regulated businesses. People misunderstand deregulation, which is largely just the government no longer deciding which airlines can fly where and at what price. Nearly everything about air travel is heavily regulated (and domestically, taxed). As a result airlines are very willing to go to lengths to endear themselves to politicians.
This story for instance always sticks with me: http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/travel/news/2002/2002-11-22-kennedy-usairways.htm
And don’t forget that – similar to Smisek’s Chairman’s flight at Newark – US Airways used to run special flights for politicians, and airlines comp elite status to politicians too.
So there’s definitely a ‘there there’ even if some critics don’t understand what it is. As long as security is performed by government, airports are owned by government, air traffic control is managed by government, and airlines have their own regulator (DOT) rather than being subjected to the same consumer protection rules as everyone else (FTC) while being shielded from lawsuits by the supposed Airline Deregulation Act airlines will be ingratiating themselves to their political overlords.
An alternative to outlawing change fees could be a law that says that when a ticket is non-refundable and comes with a change fee, that when the airline makes a change (schedule change, delay etc) it must pay that change fee to the customer. In that scenario, I would pay change fees sometimes, and other times I would receive a change fee from the airline. It would balance out. If I stick to the contract I agreed to or the airline sticks to the contract, then no change fees are necessary.
Airlines could just stick to the schedule they put up. European carriers generally stick to their plan. US carriers seem to schedule flights at attractive times, and then you get an email of “oh your trip now starts at 5 AM and you arrive at 10 PM, sucker”. Schedules are also changed by airlines so they can claim to have a good on-time departure statistic – since the old flight ceases to exist and they created a new one – now the flight shows 100% on time 🙂
As a US consumer you are forced into a lopsided contract, and this can easily be changed by the law. Would it drive air prices up? No, not if there’s enough competition between carriers, if the government takes its antitrust responsibilities seriously. Right now airlines are reaping very large profits because of the change fees they extort and the games they play with their constant reshuffling of schedules.
YCA fares are completely fine by me for the reasons you state – the big issue I see are perks handed out to congress critters simply for being a member of congress. Giving out elite status, upgrades, allowing double booking, special phone lines, etc. other than when it has been earned though BIS miles like others have to do should not be allowed.
From the text you quoted (can’t read original article because I am not giving WAPO any $) it makes it sound like Congress and staff get these rates all the time. YCA fares are only available on official travel, and not available for leisure travel. If you want to limit this “perk” then change the government travel rules.
If government workers paid more..We as taxpyers would be paying more to pay for it!!So if they can get better fares the better for us TAXPAYERS as we pay enough!!!!!!