Board members of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, a group once known for first-class travel, junkets to exotic locations and expensive dining, have embraced frugality.
A review of expense reports from 2015 found that the 17-member panel spent just over $32,000 on board-related travel and business — less than half of its $80,000 budget last year.
The documents, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, show the bulk of the money was spent by two board members who live in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania and must travel to the District to attend the monthly board meetings.
Richard Kennedy and William Shaw McDermott billed the authority just over $16,500 in 2015. A third board member, Nina Wells, who lives in New Jersey, did not seek reimbursement for her expenses.
“I try to be as conservative as I can,” said McDermott, who became chairman of the board in January. “I book all travel through the authority and where I can avoid hotel expenses by staying with family or friends.”
McDermott, who lives in Boston, spent just over $7,100 on travel last year.
The shift in spending for travel is a change from previous years, probably a reflection of both public scrutiny and reforms put in place after a 2012 inspector general’s report questioned some of the trips and expenses board members charged to the authority. Those expenses included a $9,000 ticket to an airport conference in Prague booked at the last minute and $4,800 in meal expenses, including lobster dinners, at another conference attended by board members in Hawaii.
The inspector general’s report found that although MWAA limited what its staff could spend when traveling, there were no such limits or guidelines in place for board members.
Changes to those rules, however, mean that board members must follow the federal per diem of $71-a-day for meals. They also must pay for their own alcohol, and all travel must be approved by the board’s chairman.
A review of the 2015 reports found that board members complied with the new rules, submitting documents that estimated the cost of trips and booking them through the authority’s travel agents. Members who consumed alcohol while on authority business paid for it out of their own pockets.
MWAA’s board of directors oversees a quasi-public agency that is responsible for managing Reagan National and Dulles International airports and an annual budget of $2 billion. MWAA also manages construction of the $5.8 billion Silver Line rail project that will extend Metro service to Dulles Airport and into Loudoun County.
The authority’s revenue comes from airport concessions and passenger fees, not tax dollars. Its members serve six-year terms and are appointed by the governors of Virginia and Maryland, the D.C. mayor and the federal government. Board members do not receive compensation for their service.
In all, eight of the 17 board members sought reimbursement for board-related business or travel expenses.
Kennedy, who lives in Pennsylvania, billed more than $9,400 in travel expenses, including hotel stays and meals.
In an email, he noted that it is not surprising that his costs would be the highest because he was required to attend additional meetings tied to his work on various board committees.
“There were a few times this past year where extra trips were required to handle various committee issues,” he wrote. “The other [federal appointees] were not involved in those meetings, so it is no surprise that my expenses may be higher.”
Kennedy also noted that MWAA staff members are responsible for making all travel arrangements, adding that “discretionary spending” for meals and other incidentals is also subject to review by staff.
Three board members — Earl Adams Jr., A. Bradley Mims and Warner Session — traveled to aviation-related conferences in cities including Boston; New Orleans; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; and Newport Beach, Calif.
Mims, a former official with the Federal Aviation Administration who represents Maryland on the MWAA board, attended three conferences in 2015 — in Boston, New Orleans and Newport Beach, where he served as a moderator on a panel.
In all, he billed just over $4,600 in travel expenses.
Mims said conferences are valuable because they enable him to network and learn more about changes and best practices in aviation and airport management.
“When we go to these conferences, we get refreshed on what’s transpired in the industry,” he said. “We need to know what’s going on.”
Mims said past board conduct probably has had a chilling effect that has made current board members reluctant to travel. As a result, they may be missing the opportunity to learn about changes and best practices.
Session, who had the third-highest total in 2015 at just over $5,600, attended two aviation-related conferences in New Orleans and Fort Lauderdale and took two trips to New York related to meetings tied to the authority’s finances.
“I strongly believe that conferences have huge value regardless of whatever industry you’re in,” Session said. “You get value out of continued education.”
Michael Curto, who also attended the meetings in New York, submitted nearly $3,000 in travel expenses tied to those events. He did not respond to requests for comment.
Adams, who attended the Airport Minority Advisory Council’s Business Diversity Conference in Fort Lauderdale, said the trip offered him an opportunity to network with other airport professionals.
He said that although the authority was smart to establish guidelines for board members’ travel, he, like Mims, is concerned the controls have prevented board members from connecting with other industry professionals.
“[Board members] have really held back on travel unless it’s truly necessary,” he said. “It’s important that we attend [conferences] because if we don’t attend, we don’t know.”
McDermott said it may be time to rethink whether board members should attend more conferences.
“Attendance at some of these conferences can be beneficial,” he said. “I’d like to see where the perfect sweet spot is. We want to have an abiding feeling about frugality when we can — people being modest about what they do and charge to the authority — but we also want to be smart about what is the equivalent of professional development.”
MWAA board members still travel, but do it less lavishly – Washington Post