NASA wasted millions of dollars over a two-year period by shunning commercial airline flights and instead using its own planes for routine travel, according to a government report provided to The Associated Press on Thursday.
The Government Accountability Office found that NASA spent at least five times more by flying employees on its own planes in fiscal 2003 and 2004, compared with the cost of commercial coach tickets. The extra spending totaled about $20 million.
The GAO also reported that 86 percent of NASA’s own passenger flights in those two years — or about seven of every eight flights — involved routine business trips prohibited by rules governing what sorts of flights federal workers can take on government aircraft.
Some travel examples cited in the report include meetings, speeches, executive retreats and even the inauguration of Florida’s governor and the 60th anniversary ceremony of the Pearl Harbor attack.
It was the government’s latest criticism of NASA’s use of passenger planes. Twice during the 1990s, the space agency’s own inspector general office found faults with the travel system.
Troubled by ‘abuse of aircraft’
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who requested the GAO investigation, said she is troubled that “this abuse of the aircraft has been going on for years.” Her office provided a copy of the GAO report to the AP on Thursday, a day before its public release.
“It’s frustrating that it’s taken two [inspector general] audits, a GAO investigation and the threat of a congressional oversight hearing to get an agency to comply with its obligations to the taxpayers,” Collins said in a phone interview. “In the environment we’re in right now with tight federal budgets and the demands of responding to Hurricane Katrina, it is particularly disturbing to learn that a federal agency is not being a more careful steward of the taxpayers’ dollars. There’s also a waste of fuel here, too.”
Collins, who heads the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, said she has talked to NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, who took over the space agency just this year, and he has promised to make changes.
“Our goal is to fully comply with federal-wide aircraft management policy,” Griffin assured the GAO in a letter included in the report.
Griffin’s predecessor, Sean O’Keefe, now Louisiana State University’s chancellor, was in charge of NASA during the period covered by the GAO investigation. O’Keefe is not mentioned by name in the report; former and current senior NASA officials told the AP earlier this year he was being investigated personally for potential misuse of government planes and taking too many expensive getaways with his staff.
The GAO noted that while most NASA air travel is on commercial airlines, employees took at least 1,188 flights using space agency planes during the two-year period under review. Collins said she asked the GAO to subtract flights related to the 2003 Columbia tragedy.
Even so, “we’re talking about almost 1,200 flights during fiscal years 2003 and 2004 that are questionable flights,” she said.
In 2003, NASA owned and operated 85 planes valued at $362 million — 53 planes to support the space shuttle, space station and astronaut programs, 25 for research and development, and seven for passenger travel. The space agency has owned a small fleet of passenger planes since its inception in 1958.