An internal Transportation Department watchdog said Monday that it will audit Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s use of Federal Aviation Administration jets for official trips, as well as travel by his predecessor, Elaine Chao.
There are long-established rules for use of the planes, which Buttigieg’s office says have been followed, and past secretaries also have used them. The audit will come at a time when Republicans have been ratcheting up pressure on Buttigieg over the derailment of a freight train in Ohio and disruptions to air travel. The audit of Buttigieg’s travel was requested by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who cited a report by Fox News.
Kerry Arndt, a spokeswoman for Buttigieg, said in an emailed statement that his team welcomed the review, which it said would be a chance to “put some of the false, outlandish, and cynical claims about the Secretary’s mode of travel to rest.”
“The fact remains that he flies commercially the vast majority of the time,” Arndt said. “The exceptions have been when the Department’s career ethics officials, who have served under both Democratic and Republican administrations, determined that the use of a 9-seat FAA plane would be either more cost effective or should be approved for exceptional scheduling or security reasons.”
In a memo detailing the scope of the audit, the inspector general’s office said it would review travel dating to Jan. 31, 2017, the date Chao was sworn into office. The office said the audit will “determine whether the Office of the Secretary complied with Federal regulations, policies, and procedures regarding executive travel on DOT aircraft.”
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) had also asked for information about Buttigieg’s travel, questioning whether some of his trips could be justified.
“Brief meetings with people you could have met with in Washington, or picked up a phone to talk to, create questions about whether you really required the use of a private jet, especially as you call on Americans to sacrifice to reduce carbon emissions,” Grassley wrote in January.
In a response Monday to Grassley, the Transportation Department said that of 138 flights Buttigieg has taken since being sworn in early in 2021, 119 have been on commercial airlines.
Buttigieg used a Coast Guard aircraft once, according to the Transportation Department. He flew to Europe on a military plane to represent the administration at the Invictus Games, a contest for wounded members of the military and veterans.
In the early months of the Trump administration, Chao used the FAA’s planes for seven trips, including on two that were international. The Transportation Department said Monday that those seven trips involved 15 individual flights. One trip to Europe cost $68,892 for Chao and five staffers, according to the department. Her office sought to use a government plane on that trip for security purposes, according to a memo seeking approval for its use. Chao could not be reached for comment Monday.
Anthony Foxx, who served under President Barack Obama, used the planes on 116 trips over four years, the department said. Officials did not have information on how many individual flights the trips involved.
Republicans in Congress have been seeking information about Buttigieg’s use of government planes after an advocacy group obtained details about the flights in December.
“American taxpayers deserve assurances that their tax dollars are not wasted by the government’s highest officials,” Rubio wrote to the inspector general in December while asking for the review. “I am committed to both holding Secretary Buttigieg accountable for any fraudulent use of government aircraft, and ensuring compliance with DOT policies and procedures.”
The FAA said in a statement that it maintains a fleet of aircraft primarily for safety research. But they can also be used by other government agencies and the Transportation Department to carry high-ranking officials. Trips carrying Buttigieg amounted to 3 percent of the flights of three planes in the FAA’s fleet, the agency said.
Federal rules require the department to compare the cost of using an FAA plane with commercial options. Transportation Department officials are given a hefty discount compared with other users.
The FAA’s rates to use a Cessna Citation come in at almost $5,000 per hour for non-Transportation Department users. But for officials within the department, the rate is about $1,000 per hour — largely because of a difference in how leasing costs are accounted for. The FAA translates those hourly rates into the equivalent of a per-seat ticket cost to allow for price comparisons.
In the letter to Grassley, the Transportation Department said there are occasions when it is more efficient and cost-effective for Buttigieg and his staff to use agency planes.
“Use of an FAA plane in limited, specific cases has helped to maximize efficiency and save thousands of taxpayer dollars,” the department wrote. “Because the FAA already budgets for the operation, maintenance, and leasing of the fleet for core FAA missions, government officials’ use of an FAA aircraft incurs limited marginal operating costs.”
Buttigieg used the plane on a multi-city tour of the country over the summer to promote grants funded by the infrastructure law. That tour accounted for seven of the flights. His office said using an FAA plane on that trip cost $14,940.40 and allowed him to reach rural areas. Including the cost of travel for the secretary and his staff, the department said taxpayers saved $2,300.
“Just for the record, the vast majority of my travel’s on airlines,” Buttigieg said in an interview as his SUV pulled up to his plane when it was on the tarmac in Reno in August. When he uses the plane, Buttigieg said, it’s “either because we have a complicated itinerary or because we do the math and it’s actually cheaper for the taxpayer.”
In the one case in which the department determined that use of the plane was not less expensive than commercial travel, officials said that weather disrupted a flight to Arizona and that a commercial alternative would have required a layover that Buttigieg’s security team could not accommodate on short notice.
During the Trump administration, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned after facing inquiries over his use of chartered aircraft for a dozen trips over a span of five months. A subsequent review by his department’s inspector general concluded that Price’s office had not performed cost comparisons for the trips and that $341,000 had been wasted on his travel.
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