Flying home wasn’t an issue for Panetta when he served in Congress from 1977 to 1993 and built a reputation as a deficit hawk. Like many lawmakers who returned to their districts for the weekend, he took commercial flights and paid the bill himself. He followed a similar routine when he served as budget director and White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration, although the demands of the latter job made it tougher to escape Washington.
Panetta resumed his cross-country commutes when President Obama plucked him from retirement to lead the CIA in 2009. Given the nature of the spy business, Panetta’s whereabouts usually weren’t public knowledge.
Since becoming defense secretary in July, however, his travels have attracted more attention, in part because Pentagon leaders say they are scraping by to adjust to a new era of austerity. Under a defense budget that will shrink slightly next year for the first time since 1998, Panetta has proposed closing military bases, cutting the number of active-duty troops and raising health insurance premiums for military retirees.
Under government rules established by President George W. Bush, the defense secretary is required to fly on military aircraft, which are outfitted with secure communication links to the White House and Pentagon.
Under the same rules, Panetta must reimburse the government for what it would cost for a round-trip commercial flight to the same destination — usually a fraction of the expense of operating a military plane.
The Associated Press reported this month that Panetta had reimbursed the government about $17,000 for 27 personal trips since becoming Pentagon chief. The AP calculated that the expense of operating Panetta’s military aircraft — usually an Air Force C-37A — totaled about $860,000 for those trips.
It costs the Pentagon about $3,200 per hour to operate a C-37A on Panetta’s trips, according to the AP. Defense officials said the expense of Panetta’s individual flights can vary, depending on the number of staff and crew members who accompany him and the itinerary. The defense secretary often schedules stops for official business at military bases while en route to California or on the way back to the Pentagon.
The C-37A is similar to a Gulfstream business jet. It is considerably smaller than the Air Force’s E-4B, or National Airborne Operations Center, a modified Boeing 747 that Panetta flies when traveling overseas. He does not use that aircraft when going home for the weekend.
Although Panetta said he regrets the cost to taxpayers, he told reporters that he is open to “alternatives here that I can look at, that might possibly be able to save funds and, at the same time, be able to fulfill my responsibilities not only to my job but to my family.”
George Little, a Pentagon spokesman, said Panetta was “always concerned about costs” and has asked defense officials whether there are cheaper options that would enable him to travel with secure communication links.
“No one wants the secretary of defense making decisions on classified military operations from the middle seat on a crowded commercial jet,” Little said.
At a joint news conference with Panetta, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, volunteered that the defense secretary is hardly slacking off back home on the weekends.
“Let me help the boss here,” Dempsey said. “He doesn’t get much rest in California, based on the number of times I know that I’m in contact with him.”