Report: Chao has used government planes seven times this year

The Hill

BY MELANIE ZANONA – 

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao flew on taxpayer-funded government planes seven times this year, The Washington Post reported Thursday.

It appears the flights were taken when cheaper options wouldn’t work, last-minute changes were made to Chao’s schedule or it was more time-efficient to do so.

As Transportation chief, Chao has access to a small fleet of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) jets that have served the travel needs of other Transportation secretaries and are regularly loaned out to other government agencies.

But the revelations come as the Trump administration faces heavy scrutiny for Cabinet members’ use of private planes.

And a House GOP chairman is investigating Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke over his reported use of charter flights, including a $12,000 one from a dinner hosted by a former campaign donor.

A spokeswoman asked about Chao told the Post, “The secretary prefers to travel commercial and does so whenever possible,” including aboard 38 commercial flights this year. Chao “typically flies coach,” she added.

Chao, who is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), has flown on the FAA’s Gulfstream IV and two leased Cessnas seven times in the past eight months, according to the report. That includes day trips to cities about an hour’s flight from Washington, as well as longer trip to France and Italy, costing tens of thousands of dollars, the report added.

The Transportation Department said its ethics counsel conducted a cost analysis and approved all of Chao’s government flights.

A spokeswoman also pointed out that former Transportation secretaries regularly used government planes, including Anthony Foxx, who flew on government jets 116 times from 2013 to 2017. And past Transportation secretaries have used government planes to fly to Europe over security concerns.

In one instance this June, Chao was planning to fly commercial to Detroit to attend an auto event. But days before, the White House scheduled an “infrastructure week” speech in Washington. Chao flew on an FAA Cessna business jet in order to make the events in both cities.

Chao also flew on a government plane, along with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, to attend an Aug. 15 press conference at Trump Tower with President Trump, to attend the Paris Air Show and deliver a speech at a conference on the Italian island of Sardinia, and to attend a ribbon-cutting event in South Bend, Ind.

“It was a more cost-effective and efficient way to get the secretary and her staff to South Bend and back to Washington in the time required,” a spokeswoman said.

The FAA keeps three planes stored at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. If another government agency wants to use one of the aircraft, the FAA charges $5,644 an hour for the Gulfstream and $4,922 an hour for the Cessnas. The FAA has a discounted internal flight-hour rate, the report noted.

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