NASA Travel:

Passenger Aircraft Services Annually Cost Taxpayers Millions More Than Commercial Airlines

GAO-05-818: Published: Aug 26, 2005. Publicly Released: Sep 30, 2005.

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Since its creation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has operated passenger aircraft services. These operations have been questioned in several prior audit reports. GAO was asked to perform a series of audits of NASA's controls to prevent fraud, waste, and abuse of taxpayer dollars. In this audit, GAO assessed (1) the relative cost of NASA passenger aircraft services in comparison with commercial costs, (2) whether NASA aircraft services were retained and operated in accordance with governmentwide guidance, and (3) the effectiveness of NASA's oversight and management of this program.

NASA-owned and -chartered passenger aircraft services provide a perquisite to employees, but cost taxpayers an estimated five times more than flying on commercial airlines. While the majority of NASA air travel is on commercial airlines, NASA employees took at least 1,188 flights using NASA passenger aircraft services during fiscal years 2003 and 2004. Use of NASA passenger aircraft services can save time, provide more flexibility to meet senior executives' schedules, and provide other less tangible and quantifiable benefits. However, GAO's analysis of available reported data related to NASA passenger aircraft services during fiscal years 2003 and 2004 showed NASA reported costs were nearly $25 million compared with estimated commercial airline coach transportation costs of about $5 million. Further, this relative cost comparison, based on available NASA reported costs, did not take into account all applicable types of costs associated with its passenger aircraft services, including, for example, depreciation associated with the estimated $14 million NASA paid in 2001 to acquire several aircraft used for passenger transportation. Consequently, NASA's passenger air transportation services are much more costly than indicated by available data. Further, NASA is currently considering additional expenditures of about $77 million to upgrade and expand its existing passenger fleet. NASA's ownership of aircraft used to provide passenger transportation conflicts with federal policy allowing agencies to own aircraft only as needed to meet specified mission requirements, such as prisoner transportation and aeronautical research. GAO's analysis of NASA passenger aircraft flights for fiscal years 2003 and 2004 showed that an estimated 86 percent--about seven out of every eight flights--were taken to support routine business operations specifically prohibited by federal policy regarding aircraft ownership, including routine site visits, meetings, speeches, and conferences. Further, agencywide oversight and management of its passenger aircraft services was not effective. NASA's ability to make informed decisions on continued ownership of its passenger aircraft fleet and on flight-by-flight justifications was impaired by the lack of reliable agencywide data on aircraft costs and other weak management oversight practices.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Matters for Congressional Consideration

    Matter: Congress may wish to consider whether legislation is necessary to ensure that funding for future NASA passenger aircraft purchases and operations is restricted to those necessary to meet mission requirements consistent with OMB guidance.

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As of fiscal year 2007, NASA reported that had not acquired any additional aircraft, and had no plans to acquire any aircraft, to be used to for passenger transportation. With these actions, if continued, NASA addressed GAO's concern that NASA future funding exclude any requests to acquire aircraft for passenger transportation. Consequently, the matter for congressional consideration is no longer necessary.

    Matter: Congress may wish to consider whether legislation is necessary to ensure that NASA disposes of all of its passenger aircraft not used in accordance with the Office of Management and Budget's (OMB) explicit policy prohibition against owning aircraft to support travel to routine site visits, meetings, speeches, and conferences.

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As of fiscal year 2007, NASA reported that it had either disposed of or reprogrammed its aircraft previously used to provide passenger transportation to perform missions that are in compliance with NASA and OMB guidance, such as pilot training, range clearance, and safety chase missions. With these aircraft disposition and reprogramming actions, NASA substantially addressed GAO's findings such that the matter for congressional consideration is no longer necessary.

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To the extent that Congress determines that NASA should continue to retain aircraft or passenger aircraft charter services to provide passenger transportation, the Administrator of NASA should revise existing policies and procedures used to determine if individual flights are justified to include use of up-to-date variable costs and limit commercial cost estimates to include airfare, in-transit salaries and fringe benefits, and other costs directly related to reasonable estimates of delays incurred in meeting commercial airline flight schedules in accordance with OMB and General Services Administration guidance.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Based on our recommendation, NASA issued revised policy on October 1, 2005, eliminating the use of a productivity multiplier in its flight justification calculations. In addition, the revised guidance also reflected revised variable cost per hour rates for passenger aircraft conforming to OMB guidance. As a result, NASA should be able to more accurately assess costs associated with alternative as part of its individual flight justifications.

    Recommendation: To the extent that Congress determines that NASA should continue to retain aircraft or passenger aircraft charter services to provide passenger transportation, the Administrator of NASA should maximize the use of flexible, cost-effective arrangements to meet mission-required passenger air transportation service needs in lieu of aircraft ownership.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NASA implemented a new program in 2005, the Commercial Aviation Transportation Services(CATS). Consistent with the intent of our recommendation, NASA's CATS is directed at evaluating the price and mission effectiveness of commercial air transportation services in comparison with operating NASA's own aircraft to meet the agency's mission-required passenger transportation needs. NASA's action to improve its ability to evaluate and better utilize private commercial carriers to meet its mission requirements, will better enable the agency to ensure that transportation services needed for its mission are carried out in the most cost-effective manner possible.

    Recommendation: To the extent that Congress determines that NASA should continue to retain aircraft or passenger aircraft charter services to provide passenger transportation, the Administrator of NASA should periodically assess the extent to which NASA has a continuing need to own aircraft to provide passenger transportation in support of mission requirements in accordance with OMB guidance.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to GAO's recommendation, NASA completed a study, dated December 1, 2005, assessing its passenger aircraft ownership needs related to mission requirements prescribed by OMB guidance. The study directed that NASA should establish policy and procedures to periodically reassess the agency's continuing needs for owning passenger aircraft to meet mission requirements. NASA's December 2005 study directive is consistent with, and substantially addresses, the intent of GAO's recommendation.

    Recommendation: To the extent that Congress determines that NASA should continue to retain aircraft or passenger aircraft charter services to provide passenger transportation, the Administrator of NASA should clarify policies and procedures applicable to aircraft acquisition and retention to limit the number and type of aircraft owned and chartered for passenger transportation to those necessary to meet the "mission-required" criteria in OMB guidance.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In October 2005 NASA issued guidance clarifying its mission management aircraft policy (covering both aircraft acquisition and retention) to bring it into alignment with OMB's government-wide policies.

    Recommendation: To the extent that Congress determines that NASA should continue to retain aircraft or passenger aircraft charter services to provide passenger transportation, the Administrator of NASA should establish policies and procedures for accumulating and reporting on its passenger aircraft services to provide complete and accurate agencywide cost and utilization data to support oversight and decision making on operating and retaining such aircraft services.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As of October 2005, NASA implemented system changes to enable agency-wide visibility of its passenger aircraft cost and utilization, including aircraft-use cost justifications, flight records, maintenance, and other logistical data. Specifically, in October 2005 guidance (section 3.6.2.1), NASA established a policy for all NASA centers to provide monthly updates on NASA passenger aircraft cost and utilization data.

    Recommendation: To the extent that Congress determines that NASA should continue to retain aircraft or passenger aircraft charter services to provide passenger transportation, the Administrator of NASA should establish agencywide policies and procedures for identifying and recovering applicable costs associated with nonofficial personnel traveling using NASA passenger aircraft services on a reimbursable basis.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to GAO's recommendation, on October 1, 2005, NASA revised its aircraft use policy to include specific instructions for identifying and obtaining reimbursements from non-official travelers using NASA's passenger aircraft services. This policy change provides a basis for recovering costs associated with provided air transportation services to these non-official travelers and should result in savings to NASA and the federal government to the extent that NASA is reimbursed for the cost of transporting these passengers.

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