Airport Board to Vote on Travel Policy

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The governing body of publicly owned Dulles International and Reagan National airports is scheduled to consider new travel guidelines today in response to scrutiny of dozens of international trips and luxurious hotel accommodations that board members have taken in recent years with little oversight and no rules.

But the proposal includes no binding rules, leaving it unclear whether the leadership of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority would change the way it travels. Board members began developing the guidelines after a Washington Post story detailed dozens of trips taken around the world in recent years.

Leonard Manning, a District appointee to the board, said he will introduce the proposal at a board meeting this morning at the authority's offices at National. He said the policy is similar to travel guidelines established for the staff. It would allow business-class travel for trips of a certain duration and ask that board members justify trips to ensure that they benefit the authority and the Washington region.

Manning declined to provide a copy of the policy in advance of today's vote; the policy will take effect immediately if approved by the board. He said the development of the guidelines should not be construed as an acknowledgement that board members traveled improperly in the past.

"All the travel that the board took was approved by the ethics officer of the board," Manning said. "It was done to go to conferences or meetings that either promoted the authority or would add to the director's ability to make decisions on committees for the board."

Board members unanimously embraced the idea of a policy after an analysis of expense reports published in The Post revealed that annual travel by the authority's board of directors doubled from 2005 to 2008 and that some directors billed for first-class airfare, meals with spouses and hotel rooms or suites booked beyond conference dates. Many of the trips were to such attractive destinations as Paris, Hawaii and the Mexican resort of Cancun, the analysis showed.

The money being spent comes not from tax dollars but from concessions and passenger fees. Board members are not paid for their service.

"We want to be both accountable and transparent in the way we do business," said Robert Clarke Brown, a federal appointee to the board from Ohio. "It's public money that we spend."

Several board members have defended their travel and said they attended valuable conferences at which they marketed the Washington region to airlines and learned the intricacies of an industry trying to survive in financially challenging, fiercely competitive times.

H.R. Crawford, board chairman and a District appointee, said the policy strikes the right balance between providing public accountability and allowing board members to do their jobs. He said the policy suggests business-class travel except in rare circumstances, and he said it appropriately allows board members to travel more expensively than staff members.

"We're not staff," he said. "We don't fly as frequently as staff."

Others said the board has an obligation to use agency dollars unimpeachably, particularly because the authority not only is in charge of the capital region's two primary, federally owned 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.

"We felt that it was a mistake not to have a more specific set of guidelines, and now we're trying to remedy that," said board member Charles D. Snelling, a federal appointee from Pennsylvania.

The authority's annual travel expenditures, at $1.2 million, amount to less than a quarter of 1 percent of its overall budget. Directors are appointed by the governors of Virginia and Maryland, the mayor of Washington and the president.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company