Earlier this month, on July 6, the Department of Defense Inspector General released a report on something called the Patriot Express. The Patriot Express is a program of scheduled international passenger flights for military and government personnel – and their dependents – operated by DoD using chartered aircraft. According to a brochure published by Air Mobility Command, who actually oversees the program, these flights “operate the same as scheduled commercial airlines.”
The Inspector General (IG) had a pretty simple finding. “Although the Patriot Express flights were not always the most economical mode of transportation for DoD personnel traveling overseas, the program is an integral component to support DoD readiness and force protection.”
Let’s peel back the first half of that sentence.
“The Patriot Express flights were not always the most economical mode of transportation.” The IG examined six routes, and found that on three of them the Patriot Express flights were cheaper, and on three of them the commercial routings were cheaper. But what is truly damning is the size of the difference. The average savings on Patriot Express routings when they were the most cost effective option were a little over $550, while the average savings on commercial routings when they were the most cost effective option were about $800.
And why is that? In the report the IG published some statistics on load factors. Across the routes they examined, on average 41% of the seats were occupied. You got that? Better than half the seats flew empty. When was the last time you were on a commercial flight with more than half the seats empty?
AMC may think they operate the same as scheduled commercial airlines, but there is one big difference. If a commercial airline operated with half their seats empty, it would go bankrupt, fast. That sort of market discipline is lost on the federal government.
The IG waves its hands and tries to justify the value of the Patriot Express. “According to DoD guidance, through the Patriot Express Program, DoD offers peacetime business to contract carriers that participate in the CRAF [Civilian Reserve Air Fleet] Program to secure additional aircraft resources in times of conflict when airlift needs exceed the capability of military aircraft.” In other words, the Patriot Express is a subsidy for airlines who pony up aircraft during a national emergency.
I'm a patriot, and I'm all for answering the call during a national emergency, but the IG's hand waving doesn’t do it for me. I’ve been to the dance with the IG, and with the GAO, and if I tried to wave the flag instead of running the numbers they’d light me up. Crunch the data and make the case for the subsidy. Do the Analysis of Alternatives. Run the cost-benefit analysis. Construct the Business Case Analysis.
What we have is a passenger airline operated by the Department of Defense, designed as a subsidy for aircraft operators who participate in CRAF, servicing destinations that can be reached by commercial routes, and is more expensive than the commercial alternatives. And, by DoD’s own load factors, it’s obvious that the operational efficiency – the load factors – is horrible.
The justification the IG offers is that we want to be nice to the CRAF operators. This is no way to run a railroad, or a passenger airline.
Air Mobility Command is a sister command the Surface Deployment and Distribution Command (SDDC), the very same folks we blogged about last summer who couldn’t keep track of service members’ cars that were being shipped back home after overseas duty. Click here to read, “We haven’t lost your car. We just don’t know where it is,” or here to read, “It's been awhile, but it's good to have you back, Dave. Now find the darn cars.”