Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao flew on Federal Aviation Administration planes rather than commercial flights on seven occasions between January and August 2017, newly released records show — including one flight to and around Europe that cost taxpayers an estimated $68,892 for her and five staffers.
All told, Chao’s flights on the FAA planes cost an estimated $93,977.84, the records show.
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She appears to have halted the practice just as one of her fellow Cabinet members, then-Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, was facing increasing scrutiny over his use of private and military flights. Price resigned in September 2017 after POLITICO raised questions about the flight expenses, which totaled about $1.2 million.
The newly released records do not indicate that anyone has raised red flags over Chao’s use of the FAA aircraft — two Cessna Citations and one Gulfstream IV business jet — which come with rules requiring government officials to justify the flights as cost-effective. But the disclosures come amid continuing questions surrounding the travel costs of senior Trump administration officials, most recently an investigation of Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Brock Long’s use of official cars.
The FAA released the documents Tuesday. They provide a rare glimpse into the details about Chao’s travel, considering that the secretary does not release any public schedule of her official business.
A DOT spokeswoman said all of Chao’s travel was approved by the agency’s ethics officer, and that she only used the FAA’s planes in instances where it was cheaper or for extenuating circumstances, such as when security required its use. Chao’s spokeswoman also noted that Chao “routinely flies commercial” and has taken 100 commercial flights since February 2017.
Chao was not the only high-ranking government official to make use of one of the FAA’s planes during the time the documents cover, from January 2017 to April 2018. Former FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, an appointee of President Barack Obama, used the planes on four separate occasions for round trips, including from the District of Columbia to Cincinnati to tour a GE Aviation facility. FEMA officials and National Transportation Safety Board accident investigators were also frequent users.
According to the documents, the most expensive of Chao’s FAA flights began on June 18, 2017, when she rode on the agency’s Gulfstream from New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport to France to attend the Paris Air Show, an important aviation industry event. There, she gave remarks at the U.S. booth and met with representatives of government and industry, according to cost justification documents.
Accompanying her on that flight, according to a passenger manifest, were Jon Furman, a DOT special assistant to Chao; Todd Inman, DOT’s director of operations; Laura Genero, Chao’s senior adviser for strategic communications; Marianne McInerney, DOT’s director of public affairs; and an unnamed department employee.
From there, Chao and her fellow passengers flew to the Italian island of Sardinia to attend the G-7 summit, then to Ireland’s Shannon Airport to refuel en route back to Washington on June 23, 2017.
According to the cost-justification materials for the flight, Chao flew on the FAA’s jet rather than a commercial plane for security reasons. Those included the need to “store weapons” on board the plane and to ensure DOT maintained “effective communications” with Chao throughout.
Trips on the FAA’s three-plane fleet are subject to cost-justification regulations, though exceptions exist for security concerns or instances when commercial flights aren’t a viable option. Much of the time the FAA’s fleet is used for critical transportation, such as NTSB accident investigations.
Chao and staff also flew an FAA Cessna round-trip between Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and Beaumont, Texas, on March 2 and March 3, 2017, at an estimated cost of $5,721. In Texas, she was the keynote speaker at an event to christen a ship called the “Liberty Passion,” as part of DOT’s Maritime Security Program.
The documents said use of the FAA plane was necessary because no commercial flights would have allowed her to attend the ceremonies while keeping a series of previously scheduled meetings in Washington the day before.
Chao also used the FAA’s Gulfstream to ferry a delegation of several members of Congress to Canada to tour that nation’s privatized air traffic control system and related items.
The trip, from March 30, 2017 to March 31, 2017, came as House Transportation Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) was preparing to move a bill that would have broken up the FAA and given air traffic control operations to a new nonprofit body. During the debate on the measure, which drew President Donald Trump’s support for a while, proponents often held up Canada’s system as an example of a well-functioning nongovernmental air traffic control operation.
Along with Chao and Shuster, the flight to Ottawa included Rep. Dave Joyce (R-Ohio), Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), Rep. Rob Woodall (R-Ga.), Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and four DOT employees or congressional staff. The cost-justification documents say security reasons necessitated the use of an FAA aircraft rather than a commercial aircraft.
The Canada trip cost an estimated $8,646, the documents say. The government rate for 11 people to fly round trip on commercial flights from Reagan National to Ottawa would total $8,756 to $17,512 — not including certain fees — according to a General Services Administration website.
The Washington Post reported some details of Chao’s seven flights shortly after Price resigned, although it did not have information on the costs.
The last of Chao’s flights on the FAA planes — on Aug. 29, 2017 — was a same-day round trip between Washington and South Bend, Ind., to visit the South Bend International Airport and attend a ribbon cutting for a toll road project.
Because of the timing of the event, DOT asserted that it would have been more expensive to fly commercial because the eight passengers on board would have had to stay a night at a hotel in addition to the airfare.
The estimated cost to use the FAA’s plane was $2,981.
Kathryn A. Wolfe and Brianna Gurciullo contributed to this report.