By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
"What people need to understand is that this is our business," said Mame Reiley, a board member and political consultant from Alexandria. "Our mission, as board members and as the authority, is really to promote travel."
Reiley, a Virginia appointee who was board chairman until January, traveled overseas twice yearly from 2005 to 2007 -- to Dublin, Tokyo, Prague and Brussels and twice to Hawaii. She said one of the most exotic-sounding conferences, an annual event in Hawaii, has proved to be one of the most valuable for relationship-building because so many federal transportation officials and members of Congress have attended.
After a 2007 trip to Hawaii, the authority reimbursed at least two meals for Reiley's three nieces, who accompanied her. Reiley offered to pay for the meals, she said, but other board members paid the bills and were reimbursed. One dinner tab for nine people -- paid by board member Leonard Manning -- totaled $1,060.43; a dinner tab for six -- paid by Charles D. Snelling -- totaled $509.84. Reiley said in an interview that she did not know that the other board members were planning to seek reimbursement for the meals.
Reiley also charged the authority for a $12,800 first-class ticket to a conference in Brussels and explained that she had hurt her shoulder in a fall. "Although more expensive than hoped," she wrote on her expense request, "flying 1st Class was very beneficial due to my recent extensive shoulder surgery. Tx, Mame."
Michael L. O'Reilly, a lawyer and the former mayor of Herndon, joined the board in 2007, and he has since traveled to Beijing, Russia, Cancun, Hawaii, Shanghai, Austria and St. Maarten in the Caribbean. O'Reilly, a Virginia appointee, said: "I've got tremendous experience in local government, and I know where Dulles Airport is. But I have virtually no experience in airport security, airport operations, aviation law. When we're looking at really an international phenomenon, I think that the more conferences directors can attend, the better able we are going to be to do our jobs."
Board members are not compensated beyond the free travel (and free lifetime parking at both airports if they serve a full six-year term). Many said they spend hours and hours every month -- far beyond the meetings they attend -- running a complex enterprise.
"I give them [$300,000] worth of my time every year," said Snelling, a venture capitalist from Fogelsville, Pa., and a federal appointee. "I'm a volunteer. If anybody thinks I'm going economy class, you know, why, they can take the job and shove it."
Snelling stays two nights at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Pentagon City every time he travels to Washington for meetings. Snelling's hotel bills have varied from $370 to $600 a night.
H.R. Crawford, a District appointee and former D.C. Council member who is chairman of the authority, flew through Las Vegas on his way to the 77th Annual American Association of Airport Executives' conference in Seattle in April 2005. He spent two days at the four-day conference after a four-day stop in Las Vegas. He did not charge the authority for his expenses in Las Vegas, but the authority did pay $1,600 in first-class airfare for his trip, with the explanation that it was not more expensive than a direct first-class flight to Seattle.
Authority guidelines for staff members allow for business-class travel, not first-class travel, on flights of six hours or more.
When asked about the expenditure, Crawford said: "I do not fly coach. I can't. I'm not going to." He also said: "If I go to the West Coast, of course I'm going to go to Las Vegas."
Crawford also charged $227.50 for a limousine ride from his home to Dulles for a trip to Prague in July 2006. On a trip to Russia, he was reimbursed for three nights in a suite at the Hotel Astoria in St. Petersburg, at a cost of $804 per night. Other board members stayed in the same hotel for $272 per night. (After an inquiry by The Washington Post, Crawford repaid the authority for the extra cost of the suite.)
On his way to the United Arab Emirates in March 2006, Manning, a District appointee, charged the authority for a flight to New York and a hotel room there in order to qualify for a two-for-one airline ticket deal and take a companion. The airport authority has paid for 22 such two-for-one deals for board members, records show. Manning noted that he also had used a free ticket he acquired personally to travel to an airport conference on the Caribbean island of Curacao, sparing the authority that expense.
The board's general counsel, Philip G. Sunderland, said the authority's financial team rigorously scrutinizes expense submissions. The staff regularly rejects expenses submitted by board members, but it also allows expenses that exceed the authority's travel guidelines for staff members, records show.
The staff guidelines, which Sunderland pointed out do not apply to the board, prohibit such personal expenditures as fitness clubs, laundry services, and meals and other expenses for family members. At one time or another, the authority has paid for those types of expenses when submitted by board members.
Sunderland also made clear that board travel is at members' discretion. No one on the staff tells board members whether they should or should not attend a conference. If a board member expresses interest in a particular trip, the staff will book it, no questions asked. And if a board member requests a particular itinerary, such as for one of the two-for-one American Express deals, the staff will buy it.
Spokesmen for the two industry associations that host most of the conferences attended by board members -- the American Association of Airport Executives and the Airports Council International -- said more airport staff members than directors attend their events.
"You will see a lot of top-level or second-level CEOs, executives, people who are actually running the airport," said Sean Broderick of the airport executives group.
Board members of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which controls John F. Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark airports, rarely travel to conferences, a Port Authority spokesman said. That task is left to the professional staff.
Even the most widely traveled members of the Washington area board conceded that change is in order in these times of financial hardship, when the board is preparing to scale back capital improvements by $2 billion. As a result of The Post's inquiries, the board plans to adopt a travel policy by year's end, several members said.
"I think people probably are watching a little bit more now," said Robert Clarke Brown, a university official from Shaker Heights, Ohio, and a federal appointee. With 14 overseas trips since 2005, Brown has traveled more widely in that time than any other board member. Brown was reimbursed $41,000 for travel last year.
Several board members said that if a policy is adopted, they are unlikely to curtail their travel -- because of, and not in spite of, the economic times. "For us not to promote travel, and for us not to constantly get routes, we would do at our peril," said Reiley, the past chairman.
Snelling added: 'We're running an international business, and we can't manage it sitting on our tushes in Pennsylvania."