Flying High, On Your Dime

Most people would prefer to fly first class or even business class - for the extra space and luxury perks - but so-called "premium" class flights don't come cheaply.

"Travel that costs between five and 10 times what a regular airline ticket would cost," said Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn.

Yet thousands of times a year, federal workers are breaking the rules limiting such flights, treating themselves to expensive upgrades. And you're picking up the tab, CBS News correspondent Sharyl Attkisson reports.

A new Government Accountability Office report obtained by CBS News shows widespread abuse. In one year, federal workers bought 53,000 premium-class airline tickets at a cost of 230 million tax dollars. Investigators say two out of every three of those upgrades were improper - a full $146 million worth.

Take the case of 21 employees from the U.S. Trade Representative's office. If they'd flown to their Hong Kong meeting on coach like they were supposed to, it would've cost $31,000. Instead, they treated themselves to premium class for $99,000. That's $68,000 extra for just the one trip.

An Agriculture Department official flew from Washington, D.C. to Switzerland. Coach would've cost $900 but he scored a business class seat for $7,500.

And when a Foreign Agricultural Service executive took 10 trips to Geneva, Paris and elsewhere, it would have totaled less than $9,000 in coach. But with his luxury upgrades, it was $62,000. The GAO called the $53,000 dollar difference "abusive."

Most of the abuse was found in business class. Agencies are required to track and report first-class tickets, but not business. Now, that'll change according to Coleman who requested the GAO investigation.

"Right now agencies don't even know who's abusing the system," Coleman, the head of the subcommittee on investigations, said. "They don't know the extent of the abuse."

After a similar report on travel abuse at the Defense Department in 2003, the Pentagon tightened its belt, and $60 million a year in premium flights shrank to $23 million.

In the report, the GAO doesn't name the individual abusers, but make no mistake, the names are on record - culled from government bank card records.

Not only will Congress be watching those upgrades more carefully, but under federal rules the offenders could also be forced to pay taxpayers back.

UPDATE: On Nov. 19, 2007, the GAO released recommendations for improvements to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Internal Controls and Policies on premium-class air travel. Two government committees had requested the investigation. Among the findings: "Of the 145 USDA premium class trips we examined, 140 trips did not have documentation to justify premium class travel."

Check out the report here (14 pgs).

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    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.