Defense Logistics:

Space-Available Travel Challenges May Be Exacerbated If Eligibility Expands

GAO-12-924R: Published: Sep 10, 2012. Publicly Released: Sep 10, 2012.

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James R. McTigue, Jr
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What GAO Found

According to DOD data, over 500,000 passengers used the space-available travel program from fiscal years 2009 through 2011. DOD data show that the five most-used air terminals have limited seats available. Specifically, seats for the three most-traveled destinations from each terminal were near capacity in Fiscal Year 2011. While there were some unused seats for space-available travel, these may be seats on routes with less-desirable destinations or during less-popular travel months. Additionally, DOD officials indicated that existing challenges with usage of the space-available travel program, adherence to DOD's original intent for the program, and air terminal logistics and maintenance would be exacerbated if the number of eligible passengers were to increase.

  • On the basis of Defense Manpower Data Center data, we estimated that the expansion of the space-available travel program could lead to additional space-available travelers not obtaining seats. Expanding eligibility to include international travel for gray-area retirees (retired reservists under the age of 60 who are currently eligible to travel space available within the United States) and their dependents; international travel for reservists and their dependents; and domestic and international travel for widows and their dependents could lead to around 20,000 travelers not being able to obtain space-available seats. However, this estimate may be low since it is based on the percentage of eligible travelers who used space-available travel in 2011 but does not include those who were unable to obtain space-available seats in 2011.
  • According to DOD officials, expanding the space-available travel program could also adversely affect uniformed service members, for whom DOD created the program. For example, according to Air Mobility Command officials, a lower-priority passenger who already has a seat cannot be rotated off of an en-route flight at a subsequent stop by a space-available traveler in a higher-priority category. Therefore, the higher-priority uniformed service member may have to take leave while waiting to obtain a space-available seat on another flight or purchase a ticket with a commercial airline.
  • According to DOD officials, expanding the pool of eligible passengers would also increase the burden on terminal personnel and require additional maintenance. Each space-available traveler requires terminal personnel assistance for documentation review, check-in processes, baggage handling, security screening, responding to travel questions, and transportation to and from the aircraft. DOD officials also stated that space-available travelers' use of terminal facilities results in additional maintenance costs for waiting areas, restrooms, and vending machines.
  • DOD believes budgetary constraints and planned reductions could affect future availability of seats. For example, the number of seats for space-available travel could be reduced if the number of DOD missions decreases because of DOD efficiency efforts or flight routes change based on force structure changes and mission requirements. DOD officials also stated that 90-95 percent of space-available travel is on commercially contracted aircraft, and DOD is planning to reduce its use of contracted aircraft as a result of mission reductions and budgetary constraints.
  • We found that the majority of the 24 space-available travelers interviewed at Dover Air Force Base and Baltimore Washington International Airport were generally satisfied with traveling space-available. The results of these interviews are not generalizable to a larger group and only represent observations made by these specific travelers on that particular date at those particular locations.

We are not making any recommendations for agency action or raising any matters for congressional consideration. DOD and the Department of Veterans Affairs responded to a draft of this report with no comments.

Why GAO Did This Study

The space-available travel program is a privilege given to members of the armed forces to provide some relief from the rigors of duty when members are on leave. Retired members of the armed forces were also given the privilege in recognition of a career of such rigorous duty. This privilege may, in certain circumstances, be extended to other categories of passengers, such as dependents of active and retired members of the armed forces. Through the space-available travel program, eligible travelers are permitted to use open seats on certain military-owned or contracted aircraft after all required passengers have been accommodated. Space-available flights fly within the United States, between the United States and overseas, and between overseas locations. The Department of Defense (DOD) designed the space-available program to be a privilege and only extends this privilege to space-available travelers when it does not interfere with the aircraft's mission. These aircraft are not permitted to be rerouted or rescheduled to accommodate space-available passengers, and travel must be without additional expense to the United States. Recently, bills have been introduced in Congress to reauthorize or expand the space-available travel program to potentially include international travel for gray-area retirees (reservists who are entitled to retirement pay at age 60) and their dependents, international travel for reservists and their dependents, and widows and widowers of active duty personnel and reservists and their dependents. Section 362 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 directed GAO to review DOD's space-available travel program. This report provides information on (1) the number of passengers that used the space-available travel program from 2009 through 2011, and (2) the effect that an increase in eligible travelers may have on the usage of the space-available program, adherence to DOD's original intent for the program, and air terminal logistics and maintenance.

For information, contact James R. McTigue, Jr. at (202) 512-7968 or mctiguej@gao.gov.

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