Military Won’t Promise Pelosi Nonstop Flights

Posted February 7, 2007 at 6:46pm

The Air Force cannot guarantee that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will get non-stop military transport to California, despite Rep. John Murtha’s (D-Calif.) attempt to lobby Pentagon officials on her behalf.

Murtha, chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on Defense, said Wednesday that he urged Defense Department officials to permanently provide the Speaker with a plane large enough to fly coast-to-coast without refueling.

“She needs an airplane I think,” Murtha said. “I talked to them. They were having trouble working it out. They worked it out.”

But a Defense spokesman said Wednesday afternoon that the Pentagon had met with Pelosi’s staff to provide written guidance on the use of military transport that did not include guaranteed nonstop flights.

“Speaker Pelosi will be afforded similar courtesy as Speaker Hastert in regards to travel in military aircraft,” said Lt. Col. Brian Maka. “She will be offered shuttle service for no more than 10 passengers between Washington and San Francisco only based on available aircraft.

“That does not guarantee nonstop transport.”

Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said the Speaker’s office was reviewing a letter received Wednesday from the Pentagon. The Speaker told reporters on Wednesday afternoon that she did not oppose traveling commercially but was sensitive to concerns expressed by the Defense Department and President Bush about her safety.

“We appreciate the Defense Department’s continuing concern for the Speaker’s security when she travels,” Hammill said. “We’re reviewing the letter we received this afternoon.”

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the White House agreed to grant the Speaker permanent access to military aircraft because he or she is second behind the vice president in the line of succession.

Then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) began regularly using a Lear-type jet to fly home to his Illinois district. But that small plane can travel only 2,000 miles without refueling and would not be able to make it to California without stopping.

A Pelosi spokesman said last week that the Air Force had agreed to provide the Speaker with a larger plane that could make nonstop flights to California. Her staff argued she needed a plane that would not have to stop for the sake of efficiency and security. They also said she was asking for no more than what Hastert received.

But Republicans bashed that argument as spurious, citing the cost to the taxpayers and undue stress placed on an Air Force fleet that also is used by Cabinet secretaries and top military commanders.

Calling the request “Air Pelosi,” Republican lawmakers also pointed to Murtha’s involvement, with one senior Republican who has ties to the Defense Department alleging that Murtha told Pentagon officials it would be “sexist” not to provide Pelosi with the plane.

But Murtha said that charge was “ridiculous.”

“I don’t need to say that stuff to them,” Murtha declared.

The Pentagon issued further guidance to Pelosi’s staff on Tuesday. She and her husband may fly military planes to her district as a “presidential courtesy,” or without charge, as long as her husband is attending an event for “official protocol purposes,” Maka said.

The new Speaker may request, in writing, that other members of her family fly on the plane, but they must reimburse the government at coach rate for the flight and for incidentals such as meals.

Other Members of Congress may not travel on the plane without the express consent of the ethics committee, which would determine reimbursement rates.

“Travel to political events will not be authorized on military aircraft,” Maka concluded.

Pelosi’s options in getting back to California are limited. She may no longer travel by corporate jet after the House outlawed the option when it implemented sweeping new ethics and lobbying rules in one of the Speaker’s first moves as part of the Democratic majority.

Air Force spokeswoman Lt. Col. Cathy Reardon said an agreement between Defense and Congress to provide military transport to the Speaker was formalized in 2003. It was supposed to provide transport solely upon written request from the Speaker.

According to Reardon, Congress and the Pentagon settled on the use of aircraft from the 89th Airlift Wing based at Andrews Air Force Base because its planes allowed direct, secure communications with the White House.

That fleet contains Air Force One, two 12-person C-20 and C-37 planes (both Gulfstream jets), and a small C-21, which Reardon described as the “military’s version of a Lear jet.”

Reardon said that the C-20 and C-37 planes could, under certain weather and weight conditions, make it all the way to California. The C-37 has a bigger fuel tank than the C-20, for example, but its mileage efficiency could be substantially impaired by headwinds. And in winter, nonstop flights to California on such airplanes would be very tricky.

Reardon said Congress and the Pentagon agreed on general guidelines for Hastert’s travel in 2003. They decided that he would be permitted to travel with one to three members of his personal staff, two security personnel (typically from the Capitol Police) and occasionally his wife.

But Hastert’s guests were required to reimburse the government at first-class rates.