C all it the $20 million perk.

Taxpayers ended up paying that much extra over a two-year period because NASA brass decided to use government jets for routine travel rather than fly on commercial airliners, an investigation by the Government Accountability Office found.

NASA's use of government-owned jets "cost taxpayers at least five times more per passenger than flying on commercial airlines," the GAO said.

The space agency's employees took at least 1,188 flights on NASA jets and on other federal airplanes during fiscal 2003 and 2004. Seven out of eight of the flights were for routine business, which is "expressly prohibited" by the Office of Management and Budget, the GAO said.

Overall, the GAO report appears to portray a management breakdown at NASA.

NASA did not track aircraft usage and costs to help inform day-to-day travel and budget decisions. When asked to justify travel, the agency "systematically understated" the costs of NASA jets and overstated commercial airline costs, the GAO said. During its probe, the GAO discovered that one NASA center had lost flight records and recreated data without informing the investigators.

Sean O'Keefe, chancellor at Louisiana State University, was in charge of NASA during the two-year period covered by the report. Michael Ruffner, vice chancellor for university relations, said O'Keefe "does not wish to make a comment on it. He was not named in the investigation."

Michael D. Griffin, who became NASA administrator this year, signaled that he would clip the agency's wings. In a statement, Griffin said NASA accepted GAO findings and has "embraced new guidelines" on jet travel set by OMB.

"Going forward, all airplane use will be within those guidelines," Griffin said.

The report grew out of a probe into NASA's financial management, requested by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). The GAO sent the report to her and Sens. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) last week.

According to the GAO, NASA owns 85 aircraft, valued at $362 million. Most are used to support space and research programs, but seven are used to transport passengers. In fiscal 2004, the GAO said, the seven NASA planes carried 10,000 passengers and logged nearly 4 million passenger miles.

Officials at NASA's Washington headquarters often used a Gulfstream III for trips. NASA also entered an arrangement with the Federal Aviation Administration for use of four jets (three owned by the FAA and one by NASA) at Reagan National Airport. Under the agreement, NASA could schedule flights on 24 hours' notice.

In its report, GAO listed several examples of what it called routine travel. They included a Dulles-to-Houston round trip for "budget reviews"; a trip to Japan and stop in Hawaii for NASA officials to attend the Pearl Harbor 60th anniversary ceremony; and a trip from National to Burbank, Calif., to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for the Cassini landing on Saturn.

"Excluding flights related to the Columbia accident investigation, only 3 percent of NASA's passenger aircraft activity was related to mission-required travel," the GAO concluded.

A Forum on the Web

Federal employees will want to check out a Web site that debuts today: Understanding Government, at www.understandinggov.org.

Charles Peters, the legendary editor of the Washington Monthly, is the force behind the Web site.

Although Peters retired as the Monthly's editor in 2001, "he still feels that there is a gap in Americans' understanding of government, and if we were to shed better light on what goes on in government, then government would be better," said Carol Beach, executive director of Understanding Government, which operates as a nonprofit organization.

The site will feature a forum where government employees, journalists and the public can talk about what works and does not work in federal, state and local agencies. Beach said the forum will provide government employees with an anonymous venue to discuss their work and their agencies.

Peters will write for the organization and the Web site and, Beach added, "will do actual podcasts."

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com