The Pentagon that gave taxpayers a $434 hammer and a $600 toilet seat cover now has a half-billion-dollar travel booking system that is bypassed by more than eight in 10 users.
Senate investigators found the Pentagon's Web-based product - despite its high price tag - fails to find the cheapest airfares, offers an incomplete list of flights and hotels and won't recognize travel categories used by the National Guard and Reserves.
The investigators found that Defense Department travelers are contacting professional travel agents to find their hotels, flights and rental cars, and then using the computer system to enter those choices. Once the system is activated at an installation, travelers must use it to make their reservations, the Pentagon said.
Professional travel agents benefiting
The result: a half-hour booking process that, according to testimony before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, would take travel professionals only five minutes.
The Defense Travel System was designed as the Pentagon's moneysaving version of an Internet travel site, where a traveler can make reservations without the need for fee-based travel agents.
The subcommittee, in checks this year of 41 military installations and the Pentagon, found that 83 percent of travelers have been contacting professional travel agents before entering the information in the new system. Investigators said they checked 755,000 trips between January and September.
At the Pentagon, less than 20 percent of travelers used the Defense Travel System as intended, without the travel agents. Virtually no travelers used the system at Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah, and Fort Leavenworth, Kan., investigators found.
'The system is effective'
The investigators and Congress' Government Accountability Office are now questioning the Pentagon estimates of how much it saved by replacing the old paper form system with the expensive computerized one.
A senator plans legislation to force the Pentagon to use travel agents, saying military staff is wasting too much time using the cumbersome new system and therefore erasing any cost savings.
Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., chairman of the investigative panel, said the Pentagon's idea of eliminating travel agents "would be the same as directing all DoD personnel to speak Arabic in order to save money on translation services.
"DoD is claiming the savings from reduced travel agent fees without considering the cost of having the troops do the work," Coleman said.
Pentagon officials insist the new system is working well.
"If my boss said I had to leave in a couple of hours, I could do that," said Marine Maj. Stewart Upton, a Pentagon spokesman. "The future is in Internet booking. The system is effective, it's efficient, it gives you options on airlines, rental car agencies and hotels. We're very impressed."
For 2006, the Pentagon estimated savings at between $13.9 million and $33.4 million. After 2007, the savings would range between $56 million and $177 million annually, with recent estimates supporting the higher figure, the Pentagon said.
But the cost of the Defense Travel System has skyrocketed. It grew from an initial estimate of $263 million to $474 million, bringing to mind some of the Pentagon's classic wasteful expenditures.
Coleman said further efforts to save the computer system are a waste. "I am appalled that DoD did not pull the plug on the travel function" of the new system long before now, he said.
The contract was awarded in 1998 to a company that is now part of Northrop Grumman Mission Systems.