Candidate Obama Mixes Official Business with Politics on Air Force One

By Fred Lucas | April 21, 2011 | 3:55 AM EDT

President Obama disembarks from Air Force One at Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro, N.C. on Dec. 6, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

( – As Air Force One headed to California Wednesday it carried not just the incumbent president, but also a presidential candidate.

Barack Obama headed for the West Coast for a town hall meeting at Facebook’s corporate headquarters in the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as three Democratic fundraising events, two in San Francisco and one in Los Angeles.

On Thursday, the president plans to take part in another town hall meeting in Reno, Nevada.

So, who pays for the travel?

In line with generally accepted policies in place since the Reagan administration, based on legal opinions from the Department of Justice and Federal Elections Commission (FEC), taxpayers should cover the cost of the Facebook portion of the trip, while travel relating to the campaign will be reimbursed.

According to the FEC, when a presidential or vice presidential candidate travels on the taxpayer’s dime for political purposes, they “pay the pro rata share of the fair market value of non-commercial flights.”

Reimbursement guidelines include payment of the “lowest unrestricted and nondiscounted first-class airfare in the case of travel between cities served by regularly scheduled first-class commercial airline service.”

But reimbursement of commercial first-class rates falls well short of covering the cost of the entourage accompanying the president and the cost to operate Air Force One, according to Jeff Dircksen, director of congressional analysis for the National Taxpayers Union (NTU).

“Does the president need to go all the way across the country, when he can sit in the Oval Office and do a Facebook town hall just as well as he could perhaps at Facebook’s headquarters?” Dircksen asked

“Whatever a first-class ticket from Reagan [National Airport] to San Francisco is, I’m sure it’s not going to come anywhere close approaching that number.”

The travel Web site indicates that a first-class, one-way ticket from Reagan National Airport to San Francisco on a Wednesday in April costs around $670 on U.S. Airways, $1,050 on Delta, or $1,280 on American Airlines and United.

According to an NTU analysis of Air Force data, the operation costs of Air Force One alone are about $182,000 per hour.

A report by congressional Democrats in 2006 gave a lower, yet still substantial, estimate – $56,518 per hour, based on figures cited by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2000 and adjusted for inflation.

The report, compiled by the Democratic minority on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, stated that cargo planes accompanying Air Force One operate at an additional $6,960 per hour, again using the 2000 GAO figures, adjusted for inflation.

Even after reimbursement, taxpayers still cover about 97 percent of the cost for a political trip of Air Force Once, the report said.

The 2006 report targeted President George W. Bush during the midterm election campaign, when presidents, as leaders of their parties, typically travel in support of party candidates.

“They can throw in an official function of some kind that allows them to offset some of that reimbursement, by saying ‘well this trip isn’t wholly political, there is an official function,’” said Dircksen.

“Democratic administrations [and] Republican administrations love to go out and show the pomp and circumstance of the presidency, fire up their base, and show off the president.”

Aboard Air Force One Wednesday, White House press secretary Jay Carney was asked to explain the trip’s funding.

“Can you talk about how it’s funded?” a reporter asked. “For example, there are no presidential events in Los Angeles.  Is that entire part of the trip funded through the campaign?”

Carney said the rules were being carefully followed.

“When there is travel like this that involves official travel and also political travel, this administration very diligently follows all the same rules that the Bush administration did,” he said.

“As far as the specifics on how that breaks down, I’ll have to get back to you. I don’t have that. But we’re very careful about making sure that all those rules are followed.”

A DNC spokesperson could did not respond to questions from on Wednesday.

The travel policies of specific administrations concerning the reimbursement of expenses for unofficial travel are generally not publicly available, according to a Congressional Research Service report from April 26, 2010.

“However, the Reagan administration established written guidelines in 1982 to determine when the president, vice president, and any assistants accompanying them on military aircraft travel at government expense and when they, or the political organizations on whose behalf they travel, are to reimburse the government with the equivalent of the airfare that they would have had to pay had they traveled on commercial airlines,” the CRS report says.

The CRS report continues, “In the instance of a mixed trip, the amount of the reimbursement for use of government aircraft will be prorated as indicated by the nature of the activity.”

The formula is: “Time spent in official meetings, receptions, etc. + Time spent in political meetings, receptions, rallies = Total activity time. Time spent in official activity ÷ Total activity time = Percentage of trip that is official,” the CRS report says.

“Time spent in political activity ÷ Total activity time = Percentage of trip that is political. The percentage figure that represents the political portion of the trip is then multiplied by the amount that would be reimbursed to the government if all of the travel was political. The product of that calculation represents the amount to be reimbursed to the government.”

Few tallies have been done on the cost of presidential travel, according to the CRS, and tallies that have been done relate to international trips.

“In 1992, the House Committee on Post Office and Civil Service estimated that two presidential trips, one to Europe in 1989 and the other to Hawaii in 1990, cost the Air Force $1 million to $1.5 million, and that the average vice presidential trip cost the Air Force $250,000 to $500,000. These estimates involved operational costs; they did not include per diem and other travel-related expenses.”

The CRS report also cited a 1999 GAO report that estimated the cost, including per diem and related expenses, of presidential trips in 1998 to Africa, Chile, and China to be at least $42.8 million, $10.5 million, and $18.8 million respectively.

In 2000, GAO determined the Defense Department “spent at least $292 million to provide fixed-wing airlift and air refueling support for White House foreign trips,” which totaled 27 by the president, 20 by the first lady, eight by the vice president, and 104 directed by the president from January 1, 1997, through March 31, 2000.

The estimates did not include per diem and other travel-related expenses.