Government Officials Who Fly on the Taxpayers' Dime

The President and VP Are Not the Only Publicly-Funded Flyers

President Obama and Hillary Clinton deplane from Air Force One
President Obama and Hillary Clinton Deplane from Air Force One. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

The President of the United States and the vice president are not the only non-military U.S. government officials who regularly fly on planes owned and operated by the U.S. government at the cost of taxpayers. The U.S. Attorney General and the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) not only fly - for business and pleasure -- on aircraft owned and operated by the Department of Justice; they are required to do so by executive branch policy.

Background: The Justice Department 'Air Force'

According to a recent report released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Department of Justice (DOJ) owns, leases and operates a fleet of airplanes and helicopters used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and the United States Marshals Service (USMS).

While many of the DOJ's aircraft, including a growing number of unmanned drones, are used for counterterrorism and criminal surveillance, drug smuggling interdiction, and transporting prisoners, other aircraft are used to transport certain executives of the various DOJ agencies for official and personal travel.

According to the GAO, the U.S. Marshals Service currently operates 12 aircraft primarily for air surveillance and prisoner transport
The FBI primarily uses its aircraft for mission operations but also operates a small fleet of large-cabin, long-range business jets, including two Gulfstream Vs, for both mission and nonmission travel. These aircraft possess long-range capabilities that enable FBI to conduct long-distance domestic and international flights without the need to stop for refueling. According to the FBI, the DOJ rarely authorizes the use of the Gulfstream Vs for nonmission travel, except for travel by the Attorney General and FBI Director.

Who Flies and Why?

Travel aboard the DOJ's aircraft can be for "mission-required" purposes or for "nonmission" purposes - personal travel.
Requirements for the use of government aircraft by the federal agencies for travel are established and enforced by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the General Services Administration (GSA). Under these requirements, most agency personnel who make personal, nonmission, flights on government aircraft must reimburse the government for the use of the aircraft.

But Two Executives Can Always Use Government Aircraft

According to the GAO, two DOJ executives, the U.S. Attorney General and the FBI Director, are designated by the President of the United States as "required use" travelers, meaning they are authorized to travel aboard DOJ or other government aircraft regardless of their trip purpose, including personal travel.
Why? Even when they travel for personal reasons, the Attorney General -- seventh in the line of presidential succession -- and the FBI Director are required to have special protective services and secure communications while in flight. The presence of top-level government executives and their security details on regular commercial aircraft would be disruptive and increase the potential risk to other passengers.
However, DOJ officials told the GAO that until 2011, the FBI Director, unlike the Attorney General, was allowed the discretion to use commercial air service for his personal travel.
The Attorney General and the FBI Director are required to reimburse the government for any travel made aboard government aircraft for personal or political reasons.
Other agencies are allowed to designate "required use" travelers on a trip-by-trip basis.

How Much Does It Cost Taxpayers?

The GAO's investigation found that from fiscal years 2007 through 2011, three U.S. Attorneys General -- Alberto Gonzales, Michael Mukasey and Eric Holder - and FBI Director Robert Mueller made 95% (659 out of 697 flights) of all Department of Justice nonmission-related flights aboard government aircraft at a total cost of $11.4 million.
"Specifically," notes the GAO, "the AG and FBI Director collectively took 74 percent (490 out of 659) of all of their flights for business purposes, such as conferences, meetings, and field office visits; 24 percent (158 out of 659) for personal reasons; and 2 percent (11 out of 659) for a combination of business and personal reasons.
According to the DOJ and FBI data reviewed by the GAO, the Attorneys General and the FBI Director fully reimbursed the government for flights made on government aircraft for personal reasons.
Of the $11.4 million spent from 2007 through 2011, for flights taken by the Attorneys General and FBI Director, $1.5 million was spent to relocate the aircraft they used from a secret location to Ronald Reagan National Airport and back. The FBI also uses the unmarked, covert airport to initiate sensitive operations.
Except for travel by the Attorney General and the FBI Director, "GSA regulations provide that taxpayers should pay no more than necessary for transportation and that travel on government aircraft may be authorized only when a government aircraft is the most cost effective mode of travel," noted the GAO. "In general, the agencies are required to book air travel on more cost-effective commercial airlines whenever possible."
In addition, the federal agencies are not allowed to consider personal preference or convenience when considering alternative modes of travel. The regulations allow the agencies to use government aircraft for non-mission purposes only when no commercial airline can fulfill the agency's scheduling demands, or when the actual cost of using a government aircraft is the same as or less than the cost of flying on a commercial airline.

How Many Airplanes do the Federal Agencies Own?

In July 2016, the Government Accountability Office reported that 11 non-military executive branch federal agencies owned 924 aircraft, excluding those that are loaned, leased, or otherwise provided to other entities. The inventory of aircraft included:

  • 495 fixed-wing airplanes,
  • 414 helicopters,
  • 14 unmanned aircraft systems (drones), and
  • 1 glider.

The Department of State owned the most aircraft (248), making it the federal government’s largest non-military aviation fleet. The combined 11 agencies reported spending approximately $661 million to use and maintain their owned aircraft in fiscal year 2015. Besides basic transportation, the aircraft are used for a variety of purposes, including law enforcement, scientific research, and firefighting. 

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Your Citation
Longley, Robert. "Government Officials Who Fly on the Taxpayers' Dime." ThoughtCo, Jul. 13, 2022, Longley, Robert. (2022, July 13). Government Officials Who Fly on the Taxpayers' Dime. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "Government Officials Who Fly on the Taxpayers' Dime." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).