New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) took some heat for recently flying first class from Austin to New York on American Airlines. Understanding the Congressional travel policy seems to me like the more interesting issue.
Generous Congressional Travel Policy Helps Us Understand Why Politicians Fly In First Class
The AOC issue is a political tinderbox, so rather than defend her for fighting the good fight for the poor or scorn her for the optics of flying in first class or palling around with tax evaders and the ultra-wealthy at the Met Gala, let’s not make this a discussion centering on AOC.
Instead, let’s talk how Members of Congress tend to travel. I know first hand, because I worked for two of them early in my career.
Members of Congress are allocated generous travel allowances each year, primarily to visit their home districts or states. In the House of Representatives, this is part of the Members’ Representational Allowance (MRA) which also covers staffing expenses, mail, office supplies, and rent for district offices.
MRAs ranged from $1,320,585 to $1,498,546 in 2019, the last year with available data. From that amount, theoretically, a Member of Congress could spend it all on travel and not hire staff. Travel is not limited to travel to the district.
Currently, there are no prohibitions against members of Congress flying first class or using their travel allocation to book in a premium cabin. Members of Congress have at times introduced bills to restrict premium cabin travel (such as H.R.626 – No Congressional First Class Flights Act introduced by Rep. Robert J. Whitman [R-VA] who conveniently lived within driving distance of the District of Columbia) but those bills have died in committee.
Members of Congress have access to YCA fares, which are highly discounted unrestricted fares as negotiated by the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) as part of the U.S. Government CPP (City Pair Program). As the single largest customer of commercial airline tickets, the U.S. Federal Government has negotiated a sweet deal for itself in the form of these YCA fares and it greatly influences Congressional behavior, at least in the offices I worked for.
If the Member of Congress needed to travel home to the District, we wouldn’t book one flight, we’d book 3-4 flights. That way, if the Member had a meeting or floor vote that went over or under, he could go home when he wanted. Plus, it gave him three shots at an upgrade instead of just one.
These are also coded as “full fare” economy class tickets, meaning these Members of Congress enjoy instant upgrades, where available, and enjoy being at the top of the upgrade waitlist, despite paying discount-level fares.
But we didn’t even have to leave it to chance. Airlines have Congressional travel liaisons and practically that meant calling the airline’s Congressional liaison to clear upgrades if they did not clear early, a sort of Concierge Key / Global Services / Delta 360º status without actually having to pay for it. The Member always bought economy class tickets…but always flew first class.
His weekly flights to the District and back meant top-tier elite status, something many Members of Congress enjoy.
Finally, I should note that while YCA fares are officially for “business travel” there is no actual verification – all you need to book a government ticket is a government-issued credit card (all federal government Visa cards, for example, start with the prefixes 4486, 4614, 4615, or 4716). It isn’t clear if AOC was traveling on a YCA fare for her first class fundraising trip last week, though a spokesperson stated that no taxpayer money was used for her ticket.
Members of Congress enjoy lucrative travel benefits and frequent upgrades. Some of that comes simply based upon the volume of flying they do, but they are helped with generous travel budgets and the ability to purchase deeply-discounted unrestricted fares that make upgrades to first class even easier.
On top of that, airlines are eager to please Members of Congress and the pandemic, during which airlines received billions of dollars of direct aid and payroll support, makes it very easy to understand why one hand washes the other…
image: Dimitri Rodriguez
It was from Austin not Dallas
AOC is trump of the left. She loves attention and will say stuff just to rile people up. She also puts forth legislation that has no hope of passing but generates great sound bites. It may be good for her career but it’s a waste of reputation for new York.
She is trump of the left, that’s why fox is mesmerized by her.
Also liberals are some of the most self centered people that cloak their intentions in communal well being. Student loan forgiveness, her signature issue is one. No loan forgiveness, unless you make college free for everyone from now on. I remember occupy wall street where all this bunch of young people wanted to change the system, then they found jobs and became part of the system and now probably just protect it from inside. Bunch of self- centered pricks.
No to populist sloganeering unless there is a permanent change for everyone.
Big businesses get bailouts all the time, Why not regular people? College should be free for everyone, it will help the country if more are educated… plus an educated popation will mean the demise of the republican party
I do not begrudge AOC first class, but a couple of observations:
It appears that the trip was made to support a candidate, not official travel, so I would hope the ticket was not a government fare at all.
Indeed, I assume that the fare was a non-government fare paid by the candidate’s campaign. That is the campaign’s issue to deal with.
FWIW, I recall a Monday morning PHX-DCA flight when the entire Arizona delegation was returning to DC. There were simply too many of them to upgrade them all. Indeed, I think the only one getting upgraded was a southern California congressman who connected onto that flight.
My point was that she could have easily purchased a YCA then paid for the bill later out of campaign funds. That, to me, is the most interesting question of the AOC first class debate.
Doesn’t that potential for “fraud” exist for all govt employees? Book a govt fare, but pay for it personally. This “fraud” also exists for personal travel by using a corporate code or portal for a travel booking and paying for it on a personal credit card.
I’m still not sure what the big deal is here, other than AOC being in first class.
I don’t really care if she did but that is the only angle that interests me. Personally, I could not care less if she flies in first class.
That was a really interesting piece you wrote. I wish I had access to those government fares. Your knowledge would have been helpful to the NY Post, but I don’t think their goal was objectivity. AOC, or any politician sitting up front shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody who knows anything about travel, but it does make a good outrage piece for the masses.
Great point…and that’s the only reason it was written.
I live in DC and fly often. Mostly I see members of Congress shuffling back to coach past wheee I’m sitting in first. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve flown the afternoon dca-lax on AA over the years and seen several high profile California delegation members walk past me behind the curtain. Those cabins sell out and there not always room for upgrades, regardless of political sway
Interestingly, we once flew AS nonstop from DCA-LAX when they were the only n/s game in town and first class was full of Members of Congress. A rare bipartisan display!
What about CA fares, which are cheaper than YCA fares? How come those weren’t booked?
I’d imagine for the flexibility, though these days with no change fees it seems -CA fares would be more prudent.
-CA fares are fully refundable as well, just limited to fare class availability. And for the record, using GSA fares or one’s government travel card for unofficial travel is a major ethics violation and likely a chargeable offense.
$1.5 million for each congressperson seems positively huge to me. Members of the European Parliament routinely get lambasted for receiving lavish allowances for staffing, travel etc which come to well under a third of that amount.
Yes, PM, but that’s for everything: staff salaries, district office rent, office supplies, coffee service, limos/taxis, yadda yadda yadda. It adds up…..
Most elected officials, whether state or federal, get upgrades because they fly so much. While they may get special treatment it’s probably not that much different than what any top tier flyer would enjoy.
Fascinating look at how politicians travel and book flights. I had no idea. Really nice perspective and approach to this story, Matthew.
I had a friend in college (at Georgetown) whose father had been a high level exec at one of the big 3 US airlines. She could use that Washington desk that was for Members of Congress whenever she needed to travel. Just made a call and boom! She was set to travel. It was funny to see.
“The AOC issue is a political tinderbox, so rather than defend her for fighting the good fight for the poor or scorn her for the optics of flying in first class or palling around with tax evaders and the ultra-wealthy at the Met Gala, let’s not make this a discussion centering on AOC.”
You just negated your whole preface by highlighting the earlier statements. Even bringing up the Met gala clearly shows your bias.
The fact is, she drives nearly every week to DC from NYC. Rarely flies or takes the train. And rents an apartment in the Bronx and DC. As opposed to the millionaires who normally inhabit Congress. So spare us your sanctimony.
First Class in the US is hardly some price premium over most coach fares, and the seat and service are hardly Shangri-la.
This is a non story, but given your political bias, I can see why you would troll out these kinds of click bait stories. And I’m sorry I’m contributing to it. You blog is really sucking.
Lol. So many assumptions.
Further to this, renting two apartments in two high cost areas on a Member of Congress’ salary is not easy.
Frankly, we underpay our Members of Congress when you consider their housing costs. It’s part of the reason so many members come to Congress already wealthy.
If you want better representation: 1) increase the size of Congress (the United States has one of the lowest representative to represented ratios among democracies; and 2) pay them more (including their staffs); and 3) increase the number of committee staffers, so that Congress is less reliant on outside experts (aka lobbyists).
You could quadruple the cost of running Congress and it still would not even be a rounding error in the federal budget.
Not sure how it’s “clickbait” when the post’s title is “Why Politicians Fly in First Class (Not Just AOC…)” — and then Matthew explains why (and how) politicians fly in first class. If that were the title of the post and his write-up had nothing or very little to do with politicians flying in first class, that might be considered clickbait.
I found this to be a very interesting and insightful post. I had no idea about how the congressional allowances could be used, nor the special Visa cards.
I’ve read Matthew’s blog for several years, corresponded with him, and met him on several occasions — and don’t have any idea which way he leans politically. Frankly, I don’t care because he’s a good guy. And people I trust say the same thing.
+1. Agree with you on all counts, Chris.
I’ll second agreeing with you on all counts.
Side note Loved your work in Gran Torino. It was a great role and you did a great job with it.
wpr took the words out of my mouth. While I found some interesting facts in the article, I found the reference to the Met Gala perplexing. And upon reading Matthew’s response to an earlier comment I am left scratching my head at just what about congressional travel he found so interesting? He didn’t really describe what interested him, in fact he outright stated that he had dealt with it in a previous lifetime as congressional staff. Was there something he missed in those days that he’s just learning now?
It all seems pretty disingenuous, to me.
In all sincerity, I don’t see your point or that of the other poster – I tried to paint two extremes; how the far left will defend her no matter what and how the far right will find fault in whatever she does – I was not trying to draw a false equivalency or express my own viewpoints on AOC, just sum up how she is viewed in American political discourse.
As for what interested me – I am fascinated that Members of Congress are treated better than top-tier elites who spend tens of thousands of dollars each year on airline tickets.
AOC is the Greta of politics. Do as I say not as I do. She hates Florida but went there to party maskless and got Covid. It tells a lot about her.
Your comment says more about you than about AOC. AOC was photographed maskless in Florida while sitting outdoors at a restaurant. There’s almost no risk from COVID under those circumstances. As for hating Florida, I haven’t read any such comments from AOC herself. I haven’t figure out yet whether you’re a troll or a Russian boy.
Hey ball washer!!! Who cares if it was indoors or outdoors. She was hugging people and dancing in a packed placed. Or Covid doesn’t transmit outdoors? She always attacked the Florida Governor for his actions but she still went there to party.
Given the amount of press this got her, if she gives up her next first class seat to a member of military or to someone in need, that would give her really good PR.
Term limits. Drain the swamp.
We already have term limits. They are called elections.
Yes! Whatever happened to term limits?
The republicans yapoed on this for years
(until they gained control).
Sounds like Congress gets too much$$$ to do what they want with it!!
Many years ago on an Delta ATL-LAX flight, then Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was onboard. He was coming from a mayors conference in Charleston, SC. He and his girlfriend sat in the row in front of me – in Economy. It was a 767 aircraft and I know there were First Class seat available before the flight because they were clearing Medallion upgrades at the gate. His LAPD security detail were all around him including one officer next to me (had a nice chat with him). To me his Economy-seating seemed more about appearances
I’m sure if she was traveling for a campaign on behalf of a bunch of Democratic candidates in Texas, that trip was picked up by the DCCC who in 2020 raised $345,784,504. Or possibly the travel was paid for by the various candidate’s committees.
Members can’t use taxpayer money or office staff for campaign purposes. House ethics rules state: “The House buildings, and House rooms and offices – including district offices – are supported with official funds and hence are considered official resources. Accordingly, as a general rule, they may not be used for the conduct of campaign or political activities.” So that would eliminate the use of MRA unless, of course, she happened to visit a military installation while there as a member of the Committee on Oversight and Reform or even the Federal Reserve as a member of the Committee on Financial Services as they’re all clumped right there: Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio.
Although her flight from Austin back to her district may have used MRA, I doubt it. Hard to say since money flows almost indiscriminately from both parties who have campaign committees and if there’s one in the House, the Senate has a counterpart.
I don’t thing she used MRA for the trip…I’m only curious if she bought a YCA because she could and paid for it herself.
Maybe, but heck if I was out campaigning for a bunch of candidates I wouldn’t pay for it. Does make me wonder, now that you brought it up *if* a campaign committee could drop her name to gain access to the YCA fare. Then again, if she did make any committee-related stops she may have.
So it was a campaign appearance in Texas and not official travel. YCA would be a misuse of government credit card. For me, this is in the same category as Jerry Falwell Jr. I do not care if Jerry Falwell liked to watch, only that he professed to be all pious. If it was some libertine, no problem. Whatever. Similarly with AOC, if she was representing “the rich”, no problem. But since she claims to be a democratic socialist, she should fly in economy or some all coach airline like Frontier or Allegiant or best of all on a CRJ200.
I tell my grandkids. Forget a career in medicine. The real money is in politics & will be for decades to come.
Tangential, but years ago I flew a Swiss plane from Zürich to JFK and the swiss president at the time, Éveline Widmer Schlumpf, was in the plane. It was a three class plane and she (and Susan Sarandon fwiw) had seats in first. I was in business with one of the parliamentary assistants to Ms Schlumpf and she spent the entire flight working in business class with her assistant, only moving to first to deplane. I thought it was refreshing when so many world leaders take private jets.
I don’t support any member flying first class unless it comes out of their own pocket. I am a huge fan of AOC and will continue to support her efforts. Flying first class, trading stocks, these perks need to stop. Members get all the perks and constituents are left holding the bag. Airlines kiss members ass for obvious reasons.
Years ago I was in F on a Northwest flight form MSP to DCA. My seatmate was former VP Walter Mondale. I never liked his politics but he turned out to be a delightful and entertaining companion for the journey.
Did he engage in talk or did you strike up a conversation?
This precisely why I don’t vote and haven’t for years. Regardless of what the ordinary guy expects from his elected officials, they do whatever they please. Anyone who votes and thinks he can change things is a sucker. It may change alright, but only for the elected and a few elites who bankroll them. “Politics: The domaine of the ignorant and the province of fools.”
I know that Rep. Ocasio-Cortez is doing the best she can for your people in NY-14 but I now have seen that she has sold-out the people she represent. If only Joe Crowley got a few thousand votes, there be no aoc.
She is Joe Crowley 2.0 and I compared her to Anthony Weiner
All politicians should fly coach, just like 99.9% of the flying public. They need to stand and wait to board and de-plane the aircraft. If they want to fly first class, it comes out of there own pocket and not the taxpayers. Just because there a politician, doesn’t give flying privileges.