Foreign Service officers feel dogged by airline

Al Kamen
Columnist April 17, 2012

Foreign Service officers are barking mad at United Airlines.

Seems the airline’s new policies are costing a paw and a leg for them to move their pets from country to country. The carrier’s new rules have upped the charge for pet transfers, and though it gives a nice waiver to members of the military who have to make such moves, it doesn’t offer the same deal to the diplomats.

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993. View Archive

That means that pets — newly classified as cargo instead of excess baggage — can cost several thousand dollars to transport, instead of a few hundred. And since cargo is treated differently than baggage, the pets must undergo more complicated inspections and connections — and some have even died en route, Foreign Service officers say.

Because United is so ubiquitous — and because many officers must travel on a U.S. airline — it’s often the only option.

But at least the four-legged companions have friends in high places. U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke — a former commerce secretary — weighed in with a letter to United’s CEO.

“As a pet lover myself, I am deeply concerned about this policy change,” Locke wrote. “The sharply increased costs will likely place transporting the family pet beyond the reach of some of our diplomats.”

So basically, he’s advocating a no-pup-left-behind policy. And some 3,000 Foreign Service officers wrote, too. The issue, we hear, is reaching top desks on the seventh floor at the State Department.

Pet puns aside, the Foreign Service Association says it’s a serious issue that affects the morale of the diplomatic corps across the globe.

Still find even the lower rates too pricey for schlepping Fido?

Ask a fiscal conservative like former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, and he’d tell you to strap the pup’s crate to the top of the minivan. That would work at least from Ottawa to Buenos Aires.

Just don’t say ‘clown’

Seems everyone’s gotten so uptight about federal workers and conferences these days — thanks for nothing, General Services Administration! Managers at other agencies might be casting a beadier eye than ever on their employees’ requests to travel.

How helpful, then, that the sponsors of one upcoming government conference have provided an excellent rationale that would-be attendees can use to justify their presence at what sounds like a lovely three-day affair on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

In an invitation e-mail, the organizers of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Leadership Conference, taking place next month at the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay Resort, Spa and Marina, offered a phrase government workers could use as a “suggested justification for your agency’s authorization form.”

Here are the magic words they think will help get the boss’s thumbs-up — and all one needs to do is a simple cut-and-paste job: “This unique professional development opportunity will give the EEO professional the skills necessary to plan and run a successful EEO program.”

Sounds like a winner.

GSA minding p’s and q’s

Meanwhile, GSA itself, reeling from revelations of lavish spending at agency events, has issued new rules restricting travel by agency employees and requiring top management approval of budgets and justification of conferences.

“From now until the end of this fiscal year,” acting administrator Dan Tangherlini said in an “all employees” memo e-mailed to employees Monday afternoon, “all travel for internal GSA meetings, training, conferences, seminars, leadership or management events, etc., whether paid for by the government or another entity is suspended” unless management deems it “essential.”

Tangherlini said that travel to “routine management meetings” will be allowed “after other options such as video teleconferencing are considered” and “may occur” if he or the deputy administrator approve.

Some conferences “may be permitted to go forward after an approved business justification and conference budget,” the ­
e-mail said, but only with the prior approval of several top officials, including GSA’s chief financial officer.

Big firm, little fine

The microscopic fine imposed Friday on Google for impeding a federal investigation into the company’s violation of privacy laws has some folks on the Hill grumbling about “a slap on the wrist.”

Actually, the Federal Communications Commission’s $25,000 fine is a bit less than a slap — more like a gentle nudge on the arm. As our colleague Dina ElBoghdady reports, the fine amounted to one-thousandth of what the company earns in a day.

Or, as ProPublica noted, the company earns that much in profits every 68 seconds. The FCC could have levied a whopping $337,500 fine for all the infractions, which would amount to about 15 minutes of profit.

No doubt we’ll see lawmakers start talking about companies that are “too big to fine” and even wondering about imposing criminal penalties as the only meaningful way to deal with these situations.

Hmm. Google’s top executives doing the old “perp walk” on the way to a court hearing?

Most unlikely.

Moving on

Gene Cretz, a career Foreign Service officer and Middle East veteran, was named ambassador to Libya in 2008, the first ambassador to Gaddafi-land in 36 years. He was there until early 2011, just as the revolution kicked into high gear and the embassy shut down.

The White House on Monday named Cretz, who previously served in Israel, Egypt, Syria, Pakistan and China, to be ambassador to Ghana.

With Emily Heil

The blog: washingtonpost.com/intheloop. Twitter: @InTheLoopWP.

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