This article incorrectly said that the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority derives some revenue from tolls from the Dulles Toll Road. Although the authority is set to take over operation of the toll road, it has not done so yet and the road is operated and maintained by the state of Virginia. The article also incorrectly said that board member David G. Speck took no international trips between 2005 and 2007. Speck traveled to Beijing in March 2007.
Airport Board's Travel Spending Has Few Limits
Monday, October 13, 2008
Members of the governing body of the publicly owned Dulles International and Reagan National airports have spent hundreds of thousands of the agency's dollars traveling to conferences around the world with little oversight and few, if any, rules.
An analysis of expense reports for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority dating to 2005 shows that some members of the board of directors have billed for first-class airfare, meals with spouses and hotel rooms or suites booked beyond conference dates. And the expenditures are growing: The annual cost of board travel has nearly doubled in that time. Many of the trips have been to such attractive destinations as Paris, Hawaii, Croatia and the Mexican resort of Cancun, the analysis shows.
Although some board members fly coach, subtract expenses for companions or do not travel at all, others book three, four or five international trips a year and charge hundreds of dollars a day for meals and alcohol. They rent cars used partly for sightseeing and hire limousines to and from airports.
The overall picture is one of a small handful of board members who spend nearly as much time traveling as they spend governing the airports, a job that typically requires attendance at two one-day meetings a month. Board members said the travel and conferences are necessary to learn about the industry and to promote the Washington region. They noted that they receive no salary for their work on the board.
The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, an enormous enterprise, is not only in charge of the capital region's two primary airports and the Dulles Toll Road but also has taken over a $5 billion construction project to extend Metro service between Falls Church and Dulles.
The authority is a self-supporting entity and is funded not by tax dollars but by concession and passenger fees and tolls. Its annual travel expenditures, at $1.2 million, amount to less than a quarter of 1 percent of its overall budget.
Reagan and Dulles airports are federally owned, and the 13-member board is appointed by the federal, Virginia, Maryland and District governments. The nature of some of the travel has raised questions about whether members are using public money appropriately while overseeing such high-stakes public works projects as the Metrorail extension and a major expansion at Dulles at a time when the airlines they serve are struggling to survive.
"Whether it comes to travel or anything else that the authority does, we ought to be setting an example for how we manage our finances," said David G. Speck, a board member who has taken no international trips since being appointed in 2003 by then-Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D).
Speck, a former member of the Alexandria City Council and the Virginia House of Delegates, said it concerns him that there are no rules to guide directors' travel. Staff members have guidelines, which are similar to those found elsewhere in the public sector, but those rules do not apply to the board. Speck said the perception that board members are traveling excessively could harm the authority's image and its relationships with customers and tenants.
"Every airline is struggling right now to respond to the extraordinary impact of fuel costs," Speck said. "In that context, we have to be very careful about what we do and how it looks."
The airports are trying to increase business in one of the most financially challenging times in the history of the airline industry. Competition for airline service is fierce, and the authority has to sell itself and the region intensely. Travel to conferences is imperative, several board members said in interviews, to understand the complexities of the industry. It is also crucial to relationship-building and the authority's marketing strategy, they said.
An example of the fruits of such efforts is United Airlines' inauguration last year of nonstop service between Dulles and Beijing. Two other major airports -- serving Detroit and Dallas-Fort Worth -- competed for the route, but Dulles won, in part because of the authority's successful marketing efforts, several board members said.