WASHINGTON -- Federal agencies, with a combined fleet of almost 1,400 aircraft, regularly buy and fly planes for top officials with virtually no public accountability and little incentive to cut costs.
Even government officials assigned to regulate federal air travel say the agencies are often unwilling to allow outside scrutiny, despite their persistent efforts since 1977 to bring aircraft use under control and periodic news accounts of high-level abuses.
"It's a big can of worms," said Larry Godwin, a General Services Administration official who serves on an interagency committee set up 20 months ago to find ways of monitoring and running the government air transport system more efficiently.
The system has been fraught with abuse and mismanagement for years -- long before last week's disclosures that White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu used military aircraft extensively for personal and political purposes, costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars more than if the flights had been on commercial carriers.
"The Sununu thing is nothing new," said John Tackett, director of the GSA's transport management division. "It's new for Sununu, but not for the government."
In 1977, the General Accounting Office issued its first comprehensive report on aircraft operations, finding them "inefficient and uneconomical . . . throughout the government."
By September 1988, Representative Mike Synar, D-Okla., remarked at a hearing that "senior agency officials were acting like Arab oil princes, keeping their own stables of sleek executive aircraft."
At least 11 investigations by the GAO and congressional committees into the operation of air fleets have turned up questionable practices.
In the most recent report, the GAO reported last July that FBI Director William S. Sessions took his wife on 17 business trips aboard government aircraft, for which she reimbursed federal coffers only once.
Congressional investigators found that senior Department of Transportation and U.S. Coast Guard officials, their spouses and guests were frequent fliers aboard the Coast Guard's two Gulfstream jets during the early 1980s. More than 350 trips across the country and as many as 72 flights overseas cost the government $2.6 million, including 456,000 gallons of fuel to operate the aircraft, in 1981 alone, the GAO said.
Most of those flights "did not appear justified," said the head of the GAO, Comptroller General Charles A. Bowsher, in a letter to a congressional committee in March 1983.
For example, Adm. John B. Hayes, then the Coast Guard commandant, took his wife and four passengers to visit Coast Guard units and attended the Mardi Gras in New Orleans in February 1982. The two-day trip cost more than $13,000, nearly four times the $3,300 cost of a commercial flight.
In May 1981, Admiral Hayes, his wife and four passengers flew to Boston to attend a dance, the GAO said. The overnight trip cost $5,300; a commercial flight would have cost $1,400.
It wasn't always government-owned planes that generated controversy: The Tennessee Valley Authority's nuclear power manager, Steven A. White, commuted by plane for a year between his home in Charlottesville, Va., and office in Chattanooga, Tenn., billing the taxpayers $172,700, the GAO said in 1989.
Even in 1977, when the GAO first faulted the system, James T. McIntyre Jr., deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, resisted calls for reform, insisting that a "rigorous review" needed to be done.
Five years later, the GAO found that "no actions have been taken . . . and little has changed in the way civilian agencies manage aircraft."
Constant prodding led the OMB to circulate new regulations -- first in 1983 and again in 1989 -- in an attempt to control the purchase and use of government aircraft.
They authorized the GSA to try to impose more control on the agencies' use of air fleets and required the GSA to establish the Interagency Committee for Aviation Policy, with members from each of the 12 non-military departments that own airplanes.
While the panel has up to 40 members, it has a staff of only six to deal with what officials admit is an overwhelming task.
The panel is looking at an air-management system devised and used successfully by the Navy to coordinate aircraft sorties during Operation Desert Storm, said the GSA's Mr. Godwin. The Navy's system has saved it and the Army as much as one-quarter of transport costs, he said.
The committee hopes to develop a similar computer-driven approach to improve efficiency and cut costs throughout the civilian government air fleet. But he expects it to be a tough fight.
"You can bet the agencies will perceive this as treading on their toes," he said.
Civilian agencies are supposed to report their annual expenditures on air travel to the Interagency Committee for Aviation Policy every Jan. 15. But the committee has still not received all of the 1990 costs.