Critics question influence of airline travel perks on Congress

Critics question influence of airline travel perks on Congress

When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) canceled most of the Senate’s August recess, lawmakers and staffers didn’t have to worry about one thing: airline ticket change fees.

That’s because airlines 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.

Does this generous airline benefit sway Congress into making more favorable policy decisions when it comes to the airline industry? A group of consumer advocates thinks that the answer is yes, and they’re hoping to draw public attention to what they call an unconscionable legislative perk. Others say that the flight benefits are not special because they have significant restrictions and no monetary value. What’s less clear is how these waivers directly affect your travel experience.

Are Congressional airline perks excessive?

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader and Paul Hudson, president of the advocacy group FlyersRights.org, outlined their grievances about congressional air travel perks in an open letter to Congress last month. The advocates claim that airfare benefits are excessive, effectively giving lawmakers the personal benefit of free air travel “of at least 1 to 2 percent of the cost of their air travel expense paid for by U.S. taxpayers.”

The House Committee on Ethics, which enforces standards of ethical conduct in Congress, did not comment officially for this story.

In any other context, allowing government employees to receive $200,000 worth of tax-free personal air travel would be considered illegal, the advocates say. But a 2008 memo from the House Committee On Standards of Official Conduct created a loophole for accepting these magnanimous terms, noting there was “little or no identifiable monetary value” to the tickets.

Nader and Hudson allege that airlines corrupt Congress in other ways, including by offering special benefits such as exclusive dedicated phone lines, complimentary status upgrades, ticket discounts, fee waivers and priority boarding.

“These are considered special privileges unavailable to the mere citizenry,” Nader says.

The advocates sent a survey to all 535 members of Congress in early May regarding services and freebies they receive from the airlines. Nader says he hasn’t received a response yet.

“It is unlikely that many will respond, given the prevailing level of arrogance on Capitol Hill,” he says.

Those Congressional benefits come with significant restrictions

While congressional air travel perks may seem generous, they come with significant restrictions, according to current and former travel industry employees. To qualify for the fully refundable ticket, a member of Congress or staffer must travel on government business. That person is also restricted to certain airlines and must follow other travel policies set by Congress.

Airlines for America, a trade group that represents domestic airlines, would not comment on the air travel benefits. But a representative said access to air travel is vital to Congress.

“Lawmakers travel back and forth from their districts weekly, seeing firsthand just how critical aviation is to connecting people and goods in a global economy,” said A4A spokesman Vaughn Jennings.

Andrea Newman, a recently retired senior vice president of government affairs at Delta Air Lines, says the congressional tickets are negotiated government fares, not freebies offered to Congress. Outside of the fares, she adds, airlines play it by the book.

“A member of Congress cannot ask for an airline to waive fees and an airline cannot waive the rules for a member of Congress,” she says.

The latest House Ethics Manual is mostly silent on the subject of airline tickets. It notes, for instance, that a staffer may accept “free” tickets if that person’s spouse works as a flight attendant for an airline that offers free travel to all employees and their immediate families. It also allows House members to accept frequent flier miles when they travel. The rules allow members to make multiple reservations for official travel if offered by an airline, per the special negotiated rate.

I contacted the congressional travel office and confirmed that the fare is strictly for members of Congress and staffers traveling on government business. So, for example, a senator’s family would not qualify for the government rate and fee waiver and would have to pay change fees on their tickets because of the canceled summer recess.

“Congress is getting a sweet deal from the airlines”

Nonetheless, the perks rile some observers.

“Congress is getting a sweet deal from the airlines,” says John Breyault, a vice president for the National Consumers League, an advocacy organization. “Maybe the rest of America should get the same sweet deal.” No one I spoke with for this story was aware of a private company that had negotiated comparable flight benefits.

Breyault and other advocates wonder if they explain why Congress hasn’t acted to curb outrageous airline fees and other practices unfriendly to consumers, such as the slow removal of legroom in economy class.

“Is it because they aren’t experiencing these fees themselves?” he asks.

Newman, the retired Delta vice president, says the benefits don’t affect Congress the way you might expect. Members’ families are subject to regular airline policy, she explains, and the lawmakers are frequent fliers who almost always fly in the back of the plane. She recalls at least one time when a senator complained about the size of an economy class airline seat. Shortly thereafter, she says, legislation turned up mandating a minimum amount of legroom on airlines.

Hudson is unconvinced. “If members of Congress want to show they are on the side of the public instead of the airlines, they can pledge to reject special treatment and benefits,” he says.

Political contributions made by airlines hit a record high during the 2016 election cycle, according to the website Opensecrets.org, with $7.4 million spent trying to influence policy. Some industry-watchers say that the airlines can influence Congress through their ability to award service to new cities within members’ districts or punish them by removing flights.

These benefits mean something to you and your next flight, too, beyond airline ticket envy. If Congress fails to act on the sky-high fees you’re experiencing when you try to change a ticket or reschedule a flight, this could be one reason. Until Congress flies like the rest of us, we may never get regulations that put the passengers — and not the airlines — first.

RSS
Facebook
Twitter
Visit Us
LinkedIn

Underwritten by

This site is underwritten by Sodexo North America

Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at Sodexoinsights.com.

This site is underwritten by Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at Travelexinsurance.com.

This site is underwritten by AirHelp

AirHelp is the world’s leading flight delays compensation company, helping passengers apply for compensation following a delayed or canceled flight or when boarding has been denied. It is AirHelp’s mission to fight for passenger rights by holding airlines accountable for flights disruptions that are out of passengers’ control. AirHelp has already helped 5 million people, taking the stress out of applying for compensation and making it as hassle-free as possible for travelers around the world.

This site is underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance

The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

This site is underwritten by Chubb

Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

This site is underwritten by Enterprise

A family-owned, world-class portfolio of brands. A global network that spans across more than 85 countries. Some 97,000 dedicated team members sharing common values. And more than 1.9 million vehicles taking our customers wherever they need to go.

This site is underwritten by Fareportal

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

This site is underwritten by Insuremyrentalcar.com

An independent provider of low cost CDW/LDW insurance for use with rental cars. Up to $100,000 cover with no deductible. Policies available on a per day, per trip or per year basis. Also works with overseas rentals. Try  Insuremyrentalcar.comnow.

This site is underwritten by InsureMyTrip

It’s simple. InsureMyTrip finds you the right travel insurance plan, every time. InsureMyTrip is the authority on travel insurance. Rated A+ for travel insurance by the Better Business Bureau. All travelers that purchase a policy through  InsureMyTrip have access to Anytime Advocates® for claims assistance.

This site is underwritten by Mediacom Communications

The nation’s fifth-largest cable operator, serving the smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States. We are a high-performance broadband, entertainment, and communications company that brings the power of modern technology and quality customer experience to life inside the connected home by combining ultra-fast gigabit speeds with personalized local and over-the-top entertainment choices that fit your lifestyle. Details at  Mediacomcable.com.

This site is underwritten by SCOTTeVEST

An innovative apparel brand for people who want easy access to everything they need. For those who live for every second, SCOTTeVEST lets you maximize your life. Ditch the carry-on bag and pick up a  SCOTTeVEST.

This site is underwritten by Virtuoso

The leading global network for luxury and experiential travel. This invitation-only organization comprises over 1,000 travel agency locations with 17,500 advisors in over 45 countries, and holds preferred relationships with 1,700 of the world’s finest travel companies. Virtuoso advisors collaborate with their clients to create personalized itineraries featuring exclusive perks, while also providing advice, access, advocacy, and accountability. For more information, visit  Virtuoso.com.

This site is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

As a company that is constantly striving to simplify travel insurance, VisitorsCoverage, is on a mission to help travelers make the better decisions about purchasing travel insurance, quickly. VisitorsCoverage has helped millions of travelers globally to buy the suitable travel insurance and explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at  VisitorsCoverage. Lowest Price Guaranteed.

This site is underwritten by MedjetAssist

Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. Elliott.org readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

This site is underwritten by Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

This site is underwritten by Sungard Availability Services

Leveraging more than 35 years of experience, Sungard AS designs, builds and runs critical IT services that help businesses manage complex IT, adapt quickly and build resiliency and availability. A leading provider of critical production and recovery services, Sungard AS partners with customers across the globe, delivering resilient IT systems, infrastructure and recovery services tailored to achieving desired business outcomes.

This site is underwritten by TravelInsurance.com

TravelInsurance.com makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at  TravelInsurance.com.

This site is underwritten by Squaremouth

Squaremouth helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance policies from all major providers. Only companies that meet the strict requirements of Squaremouth’s Zero Complaint Guarantee are available on the website. Compare policies on  Squaremouth.com to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

This site is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International, SinglesCruise.com, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

This site is underwritten by Travelers United

If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.