Congress's Bid for More Plush Planes Hits Turbulence

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A U.S. Air Force C-40B

UPDATED 8.30 a.m ET

Just as quickly as the House added $330 million to bolster the luxury jet fleet it uses for global jaunts, its leaders have stripped the four aircraft from next year's defense-spending bill after public outrage began to rear its head. "If the Department of Defense does not want these aircraft, they will be eliminated from the bill," Representative John Murtha, chairman of a House panel on defense appropriations, said late Monday. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose staff has scrapped with the Air Force over planes for congressional delegations, concurred with Murtha's decision.

House leaders seemed taken aback by the firestorm, even following last year's howls of outrage after U.S. auto executives flew into Washington on private jets to seek government bailouts. In part, they felt protected because the added planes — best known for flying generals and White House officials around the globe — also carry lawmakers on them approximately 15% of the time. And they do so amid comforts that most Americans who endure long security lines and cramped economy cabins could only dream about.

Senators had already been grousing that the additional planes would be a waste of money during the recession. "Talk about the wrong message at the wrong time," Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri said. "While American families are tightening their belts there is no way we should be buying extra executive jets." The anger had clearly spread. "Lawmakers justifiably pilloried the auto industry CEOs for flying on corporate jets," said Steve Ellis of the nonprofit group Taxpayers for Common Sense. "But now a few months later they are stuffing hundreds of millions into the defense budget for their own jets while the rest of America is trying to make ends meet — it doesn't make sense."

House members who favored acquiring the new planes argued that they were needed replacements for aging aircraft, and would be less costly to fly. The current Gulfstream C-20 costs $6,100 an hour to operate, compared with $2,700 for the more modern Gulfstream C-37. The Air Force VIP fleet is usually reserved for work-related foreign travel, which is a double-edged sword for lawmakers. While some boast they avoid it to save taxpayers money, others argue it is needed to visit foreign leaders and conflict zones to get a firsthand look at the impact of U.S. foreign policy.

The hidden tug-of-war over these airplanes revealed just how perk-conscious lawmakers can be. In March, the nonprofit group Judicial Watch obtained e-mails from the Pentagon (under the Freedom of Information Act) written by aides to Pelosi seeking military airplanes. "It is my understanding there are no G-5s available for the House during the Memorial Day recess," one May 2007 message said. "This is totally unacceptable." The Pentagon explained the planes were already booked by "White House military office taskings, the VP, Cabinet officers and multiple other executive users."

Mounting demand for congressional travel may help explain why the House initially ordered the Pentagon to buy two more $65 million G-5s — Gulfstream V jets, known in the Air Force as C-37s — as part of the $636 billion defense budget, along with an additional pair of $70 million C-40s, the military version of the Boeing 737. "We've always frowned upon earmarks and additives that are above and beyond what we ask for," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell stated when asked about the additional planes last week.

The House also had instructed the Air Force that two of the new planes be stationed at Andrews Air Force Base, just outside the capital. Andrews, of course, is home to Air Force One and the élite fleet of 16 additional executive jets flown by the Air Force's 89th Airlift Wing (there are dozens of other aircraft sometimes used to ferry lawmakers and other VIPs). Hard data on the 89th is tough to dig out and, obviously, both the military and Congress like it that way. The go-to source for public reports on government spending — the Government Accountability Office (GAO) — answers to Congress. "We haven't looked into it in a long time," a GAO spokeswoman says. But the Air Force, after a day of asking, reported that the 89th currently has two Air Force Ones, based on the Boeing 747 airframe; five C-20s (Gulfstream IIIs); four C-32s (Boeing 757s); five C-37s (Gulfstream Vs) and two C-40s (Boeing 737s).

It's easy to see why lawmakers might become accustomed to flying on the 89th's jets with their first-class leather seats, workstations and galleys, and on which military personnel whip up their meals, carry their bags and fix their favorite drinks. And they can stretch out — those 737-sized C-40s can fly with as few as five lawmakers aboard (they carry up to 149 passengers for Southwest). Lawmakers are also permitted to take their spouses along, for free. Folks get used to such niceties after a while, and that might have played a role in the push for the added planes. "We appreciate the efforts to help the [congressional delegation] fly commercially, but you know the problem that creates with spouses," the Pelosi aide quoted in the e-mails told the Air Force in 2007. "If we can find another way to assist with military assets, we would like to do that."