GAO Releases Report on NASA’s Misuse of Passenger Aircraft, Waste of Millions of Taxpayer Dollars

WASHINGTON, DC– At the request of Senators Susan Collins and Joseph Lieberman, Chairman and Ranking Member, respectively, of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, the GAO has today released a report entitled, “NASA Travel: Passenger Aircraft Services Annually Cost Taxpayers Millions More Than Commercial Airlines.” The GAO found that NASA employees took at least 1,188 flights using NASA passenger aircraft in 2003 and 2004, costing taxpayers $20 million more than it would have cost the same employees to fly commercial airlines, and that $100 million could be saved if NASA halted its passenger aircraft program altogether.

As a result of the Senators’ inquiry and GAO report, NASA has ordered a complete and comprehensive review of the agency’s ownership and operation of passenger aircraft, which is expected to be completed by October 31, 2005.

“Fiscal prudence by government agencies is important at all times,” wrote Senators Collins and Lieberman in a letter to NASA. “It is particularly important now, when we are faced with the impact of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita on already tight federal budgets. Unnecessary use of government aircraft that wastes both fuel and money simply cannot be tolerated.”

The Senators added, “The report, which was released today, is not the first inquiry into NASA’s abuse of its passenger aircraft. It is troubling that the GAO uncovered so many recent examples of this blatant waste of millions of taxpayer dollars.”

A text of the Senators’ letter to NASA is as follows:

September 30, 2005

The Honorable Michael D. Griffin


National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Washington, D.C. 20546-0001

Dear Administrator Griffin:

I am writing with respect to a report which the Government Accountability Office is releasing today regarding NASA’s use of passenger aircraft. Senator Lieberman, Senator Stevens and I requested this report in response to longstanding concerns that NASA’s use of its fleet of passenger aircraft does not comply with federal guidelines intended to prevent wasteful spending. GAO found that NASA’s use of the passenger aircraft violated federal guidelines in a number of respects and that flights on these aircraft cost taxpayers approximately five times as much as flying commercially.

Under guidelines established by the Office of Management and Budget, federal agencies are only allowed to own aircraft to the extent necessary to meet mission requirements. Examples of valid mission requirements include transporting troops, performing intelligence or counter-narcotics activities, and conducting scientific research. OMB guidelines explicitly exclude official travel for meetings, conferences, and routine site visits from the definition of “mission requirements,” not because such travel is unimportant, but because such travel can almost always be accomplished on commercial airlines at a lower cost.

Of the aircraft NASA owns and operates, the vast majority clearly relate to the agency’s core missions: according to NASA, more than 50 support its International Space Station, Space Shuttle, and Astronaut programs and some 25 support such important research and development efforts as high-altitude aeronautics. No one disputes the need for aircraft to perform these missions.

NASA, however also operates a small fleet of passenger aircraft or, as NASA calls them, “mission management” aircraft. During the period of the GAO’s review, NASA used seven passenger aircraft, with a book value of $33 million, primarily to transport senior NASA officials, contractors, and dependents. It is NASA’s use of these seven aircraft, one of which NASA sold in March of this year, that is the focus of the GAO report.

The GAO found that, during 2003 and 2004, NASA employees and others used these planes for at least 1,188 trips. According to the GAO, these trips cost approximately $25 million. In contrast, the same trips on commercial coach would have cost just $5 million.

Were these mission-required trips? GAO’s analysis shows that the vast majority of the trips were to attend meetings or conferences, give speeches, participate in executive retreats, or engage in other types of routine business activities that OMB excludes from the definition of mission requirements. Even giving NASA the benefit of the doubt in close cases, GAO found that only 14 percent of the trips were for arguably mission-required purposes.

Even assuming NASA needs to own some passenger aircraft, GAO’s analysis shows that it would often be cheaper to leave the NASA-owned planes in the hangar and let NASA employees travel on commercial flights with coach tickets. The OMB guidelines prohibit NASA from using its passenger aircraft for non-mission required travel that is more expensive than flying on commercial airlines, but NASA’s implementation of this policy has been fundamentally flawed.

First, NASA often understates the true cost of flying its passenger aircraft by using outdated and inaccurate cost information. For example, when calculating the cost of operating one of its aircraft, NASA used a figure of $964 per hour. A recent analysis by a NASA consultant shows that the actual cost of operating that same plane is $2,445 per hour, about 150 percent more than the amount NASA used.

Second, in considering the cost of commercial airline travel, NASA has used an “executive multiplier” of 2.5 to inflate the value of time supposedly lost by its employees when flying coach. Although NASA’s own Inspector General (IG) told the agency ten years ago that the use of this multiplier was improper, NASA continued this practice until late July of this year.

NASA’s creative accounting has enabled it to justify many trips that cost considerably more than commercial alternatives. For example, in 2004, NASA justified using agency aircraft for a trip from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to Burbank, California, based on an alleged saving of $4,800 over a commercial flight. These calculations were, however, based upon a long outdated 1998 hourly cost of operating the NASA passenger aircraft, as well as the use of the 2.5 multiplier to inflate the cost of the commercial flight. Correct those errors, and the NASA plane didn’t cost $4,800 less. It cost $16,000 more.

GAO found many other examples of trips in which NASA passenger aircraft were used at a cost much greater than commercial travel, including a trip to an executive retreat in Blue Mountain Lake, New York. These examples do nothing to allay suspicions that NASA’s passenger aircraft have been used more as a perk for senior officials than to meet mission requirements.

As suggested earlier, these concerns are not new. In 1995, the NASA IG reported that NASA passenger aircraft cost an estimated $5.8 million more than commercial flights. In 1999, the IG reviewed the use of just one NASA-owned passenger airplane and determined that it cost the agency – or, to be more precise – the taxpayers, an additional and unnecessary $2.9 million during a five-year period. The IG recommended that the aircraft be sold.

We are pleased that you have ordered a complete and comprehensive review of NASA’s ownership and operation of passenger aircraft and have taken other actions, such as discontinuing NASA’s use of the executive multiplier, that are long overdue. We understand that this review will be completed by October 31, 2005. We request that you provide the committee, as soon as possible after that review is completed, a full report of this review and all actions taken and policy changes made. We also request that you provide full cooperation to GAO as it continues its work in this area.

Fiscal prudence by government agencies is important at all times. It is particularly important now, when we are faced with the impact of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita on already tight federal budgets. Unnecessary use of government aircraft that wastes both fuel and money simply cannot be tolerated.

This also is a time when our nation is seeking to enter an exciting new era of space exploration. NASA has a mission that is both difficult and inspiring. The wise use of resources is essential if NASA is to have the confidence of the American people.


Susan M. Collins


Joseph I. Lieberman

Ranking Member