By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 4, 2008
Members of the Washington region's airport authority agreed yesterday to "make every effort" to travel more economically as part of new guidelines meant to address concerns about their costly international business trips.
But the governing body of the publicly owned Dulles International and Reagan National airports approved the policy only after a spirited discussion about whether the nonbinding guidelines would achieve anything.
The guidelines encourage board members of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority to fly coach "when possible, especially on short flights." Board members are allowed to seek reimbursement for a companion's meal if the other person was at an event "related to a business activity."
"I think these leave an open door for pretty much any decision," said David G. Speck, a Virginia appointee to the board and former Alexandria City Council member.
"I don't think we can overstate the economic state that the authority is confronted with, the airlines, the concessionaires, our business travelers," Speck said. "Part of our responsibility is to signal to everyone else -- to our staff, to our departments, to our airline partners, to everyone -- that we recognize the seriousness of this and that we are exercising prudence in our spending as well."
Other board members disagreed, saying the guidelines were not developed because directors' past travel was improper, but because it is appropriate to have a policy. Several said that the guidelines were developed after lengthy discussion and compromise and that it would not have been appropriate to revise them at yesterday's meeting.
" 'Directors are encouraged to fly coach.' I don't think it could be more clear," said Mame Reiley, another Virginia appointee and the board's vice chairman. " 'Directors will be encouraged to secure the most economic means of travel.' I think that does what we are hoping to have happen here. And so, I'm comfortable with the guidelines."
The board rejected Speck's attempt to limit members' use of business class to flights of six hours or longer. But it accepted his amendment advising directors to stay in hotels suggested by conference sponsors or in comparably priced accommodations. In the end, only Speck voted against the guidelines.
Board members unanimously embraced the idea of a policy after an analysis of expense reports published in The Washington Post revealed that the annual cost of travel by the authority's board of directors had doubled since 2005 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 destinations as Paris, Hawaii and the Mexican resort town of Cancun, the analysis showed.
Several board members have defended their travel and said they attended worthwhile conferences at which they marketed the Washington region to airlines and learned about an industry trying to survive in financially challenging and fiercely competitive times.
The money being spent comes not from tax dollars but from concessions and passenger fees. Board members are not paid.
Charles D. Snelling, a federal appointee from Pennsylvania, said the guidelines call for periodic review of board travel, so if excessive spending becomes evident, the policy can be changed.
Others said the board has an obligation to use agency dollars in unimpeachable ways. They noted that the authority is not only in charge of two 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.
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.