New York State Assembly Speaker Under Fire for Turning His Commute into Mileage Runs

@pcpontificates tweets,

Sheldon Silver should talk to @garyleff about racking up airline miles. No need to do this kind of nonsense

How would you like New York State taxpayers to fund your mileage runs?

The Speaker of the New York State Assembly needs to retain US Airways Chairmans Preferred status and takes circuitous routings between New York City and Albany.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver spent $20,219 in taxpayer money over the past three years jetting from New York City to Albany — but the top-flight pol turned easy 150-mile, one-hour jaunts into epic 500-mile, five-hour odysseys in a greedy quest to rack up frequent-flier miles, according to sources and expense records.

…“He brags about his ability to build up mileage,” said one Albany insider. “Taxpayers are footing the bill to allow Shelly to fly halfway around the world on a mileage program.”

This year alone, the Democratic kingmaker and bill slayer submitted 21 claims for reimbursement, with an average round trip costing $354…

…Silver on Friday refused to say whether he was still a member of the rewards club or how many miles he’s earned. If he were still an elite card holder, he would have earned an estimated 168,618 frequent-flier miles over the last three years. And if each sojourn was charged on his US Airways MasterCard, which records show he holds, he’d tack on an additional 40,438 miles.

The massive total translates into 205,834 frequent-flier miles — enough for a free trip around the world.

Indeed, 200,000 miles is the cost of an (economy) round the world award, but a savvier use would be two 90,000 mile roundtrip business class awards between the US and North Asia with a stopover in Europe — crossing the Atlantic in one direction and the Pacific in the other.

That said, the criticism in the piece stems from a comparison of the cost of flying to the cost of a train ticket or driving, and the piece notes that Speaker Silver has a taxpayer-funded 2011 Ford Taurus. Perhaps he should drive.

This year alone, the Democratic kingmaker and bill slayer submitted 21 claims for reimbursement, with an average round trip costing $354 — while his colleagues slummed it on $82 round-trip Amtrak trains or stuffed themselves into carpools that cost $210 for gas and tolls.

But if it’s not unreasonable for the Assembly Speaker to commute by air, then it’s not obvious to me that he’s overpaying for tickets. The only non-stop flight from the New York City area to Albany is on United from Newark. Instead, he flies from LaGuardia and connects. And he isn’t spending materially more to do so.

Here’s a calendar of lowest-price 2 day non-stop trips between New York and Albany, I have highlighted the Friday departures which would be Sunday returns.

Indeed, the piece reports that he typically leaves Manhattan on Sundays, and returns on Fridays.

He’s traveling when other legislators do and if he’s spending extra time in transit it’s likely he own time (although the piece suggests that the legislative calendar has been adjusted for his travel schedule, that strikes me as fairly standard for legislative schedules, they accommodate the head of the body).

The piece goes on to detail other gripes about the speaker, like netting money personally from his per diem by staying at cheap lodging rather than spending his full allowance on nicer hotel rooms.

In 2011, a Post reporter found Silver at the Red Carpet Inn on the outskrts of town, where drive-to-the-door rooms go for as low as $45 a night.

He now, apparently, avails himself of a government rate at the Albany Marriott.

Some readers criticize me for being too quick to come down against government agencies or politicians. And this one might reasonably come under criticism for “secretly paying sexual-harassment victims of former Assemblyman Vito Lopez” — but the complaints about his travel spending seem petty, not to be about violations of law, and based more on innuendo than legitimate criticism.

Bad analysis as it relates to the travel space will be called out on this blog for what it is. And the complaints about the New York Assembly Speaker’s choice of routing on his weekly commute certainly fall under that heading.

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About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. So he is cheap with his own money from his per diem,
    but lavish with taxpayer money for the extra long commute
    and you defend him or at least are sympathetic?
    I think the commute should be paid by his own money;
    let us see if he goes on US for CP or uses Amtrak then!

  2. I just thought the criticism and justification for singling him out was a bit over the top. As I say in the post, perhaps he should take other transportation. But “adding segments” isn’t the issue here.

  3. Seriously, people need to get over it. I’m sorry you don’t have a job that requries you to travel. If you travel for work and love to collect/use miles, who cares if you work for the government? This is outrageous and who ever started this story needs to be put in their place. It’s one thing if he was flying on paid business class tickets, but he wasn’t and their clearly is no story here. It is completely reasonable for a state legisature to fly and collect miles (with a reasonable fare).

  4. @A

    It would be reasonable if everyone else was doing the same, which apparently they are not. He is costing more money to his taxpayers with a pretty obvious reason for it. Both you and Gary are way off in trying to defend this. It’s far from worst behavior from our “representatives” but that doesn’t make it any more defendable either.

  5. Does the cheapest available fare (or near it) allow the circuitous routing?
    If yes, there is no wrong doing, the price is the same regardless.

    There is nothing wrong on per diem either, that’s the nature of it. You spend less, you keep the difference. If the government was really worried on employees getting free money, they would have required expense reports and account for every single penny/receipt.

  6. “epic 500-mile, five-hour odysseys”

    There’s nothing wrong with adding a segment here and there (well, at least not if you’re paying for it yourself), but no 500 mile mileage run should ever be called “epic”.

  7. Well, if the Speaker thing does not work out, perhaps he can start a new blog on the Boarding Area.

  8. @FlyingBear I can buy the Amtrak argument, it gets you in and out of the NYC quickly, but I don’t think driving 2 1/2 hours with no traffic (can be many more hours getting in/out of NYC) to save $130 is worth it. I would fly, regardless of miles and elite status. You are completely off your rocker if you think that you should be able to dictate how government workers travel. Should I start kayaking to Asia because the GSA City Pairs are $2,000 each way? I think not.

    I hope that all of your travel (allowed by your company regulations) is put all over blogs. I wonder how many first class tickets Google, Apple, and GE buy? Why on earth would we want to recruit and retain the best lawmakers and government employees? Penny wise, pound foolish.

  9. @A – you are off your rocker equating private business practices with government practices. Nobody with half a brain thinks government attracts anything that has “best” in front of it, unless it is a perjorative term. Government “workers” are usually those who are unemployable in the real world.

    The FF miles from government “workers” should be public property as it is paid by public monies.

  10. @Ron –

    That’s a pretty jaded opinion of government employees.

    Be realistic – slackers and moron pervade both the private and public sectors.

  11. Usually a top dog gets a few perqs. Obama gets his own plane and helicopter. No ff miles there ;).
    Since he isn’t paying materially more for travel there should be no issue. He isn’t traveling in first. There may be others way to maintain elite status that takes less time than bis flying. But each to their own. No harm, no foul here. Lets move on

  12. @Ron – Maybe you should move your comments to the I hate government employees blog a.k.a Fox News Network. Beyond your local DMV or post office how often have you actually interacted with government employees (I’m talking professional to upper management level)? How do you know that they aren’t some of the best and brightest? I can say without a doubt about professional level government employees that you are wrong. These are hard and smart working people. These are the people who travel for the government, not your post office employees.

    If I fly for work, I am entitled to keep my miles. I’m not going to even get into the merits of why gov employees are allowed to keep the miles that they accrue, but without a doubt they are not public property. One thing you are missing about FF programs is that the end-user keeps the miles, not who pays for the ticket. My mother can buy my ticket, but they are my FF miles. This is something the airlines have created, not the government.

    FYI – You can thank the United States Government for my elite status as a United GS, SPG Platinum, and Hilton Diamond. Not to mention my amazing vacations, which in your mind are on the government’s dollar. A mile is a mile no matter if Apple, USG, Wal Mart, or you personally paid for it. Get over it.

  13. This is much ado about nothing. If he’s not wasting taxpayers’ money (which he’s apparently not), then move along, nothing to see here. It’s just whiners whining.

  14. Well heck, because government workers are paid by public monies, obviously the homes they pay mortgages on are public property too, right Ron?

    And the word is “pejorative” – surely anyone with half a brain knows that!

  15. The key here is whether or not it is ok for him to fly as opposed to take the train. If it’s ok for him to fly, then his routing shouldn’t matter since there is probably very little fare difference. There is an argument to be made that he should take the train instead of fly, but that isn’t what the article seems to be focusing on. They seem to be caught up on the extra segments because they are unclear about how fare work.

  16. Someone needs to clue him onto credit card churning and manufactured spending…More taxpayer friendly.

  17. This just sounds like something one of his political foes is trying to stoke into a big fire. As the saying goes: “move on folks there’s nothing to see here”

  18. i get that he was adding segments to accrue extra miles, but isnt a mileage run an unnecessary flight flown because the CPM is worth it for the miles & status and whatnot? flying to and from work is not a mileage run in my book. good for him.

  19. Connecting flights on this route may have been cheaper than non-stop flights. Add in the additional transport costs to get to EWR vs LGA, and perhaps he saved money for the taxpayers and got extra miles at the same time?

    I routinely find it much cheaper to take a one-connection flight than a non-stop flight for domestic and international tickets.

  20. This isn’t even “news” — Google reveals that the New York Sun wrote about this in 2008, and it was discussed on Flyer Talk. Must be the silly season.

  21. @Ron,

    As to your claim that:

    “The FF miles from government “workers” should be public property as it is paid by public monies.”

    Just about every program defines whose property the miles are (always the traveler’s, not the payer’s) and the terms and conditions of transferring them.

    Moreover, if you were to review the city pair schedules, you’d find that Federal Government airfares are pretty cheap – so cheap that it is unlikely that creating a subcabinet level agency staffed with scores of the civil servants you deride to collect and apply miles would be much of a value to the taxpayer.

  22. Frequent flyer miles earned on government travel used to ‘belong to the federal government’ by policy. Travelers were supposed to use those miles to offset the cost of government travel. It turns out that it didn’t work. It’s complicated to track which miles are earned from business travel vs other sources. It’s complicated to them redeem those miles, especially if you need flexible tickets or to travel at specific times. And it’s tough not just to enforce, but encourage — if you don’t collect miles for your travel even incentivizing providing frequent flyer account data is hard.

    In the end the federal government determined they were not getting a material benefit from the policy, and they were just pissing off their employees. So the policy was changed early on in the GW Bush administration.

    Now, apparently American Samoa and Hawaiian Airlines have worked out to deposit miles from government official travel to a government frequent flyer account rather than the account of the individuals. That solves some of the tracking problems. We’ll see how that works out.

    But the whole point of those programs is to incentivize consumer behavior, not to rebate airfare to the government, so not sure how interested airlines will be generally in pursuing this unless it’s a requirement of obtaining a route contract.

  23. So there’s a train that that costs 1/4 of these flights and takes half the time as his routing… that we are also paying taxes to subsidize? Not to mention, he could actually get work done on the train with his staff. When you’re on the clock, wasting time is wasting money. His $120k+ job as assemblyman and speaker is considered 24/7. Purposefully wasting time and squeezing out every dime of per diem comes at the taxpayer’s expense.

    Silver’s already dirty and this behavior just reinforces that he doesn’t have constituents interests in mind.

    Is it legal? Yes. Is it ethical? No.

  24. It’s pretty awful that this is allowed to go on

    I understand needing to work around the head of the lobby’s schedule if he can’t get in by a certain time or the last flight out leaves at XX:XX o’clock, but to force the entire body to work around your schedule just because you don’t want to take a direct flight or train for mileage purposes seems like a horrific abuse of power

    And yes, I know that indirect flights sometimes can cost less. But trust me – if you know Shelly Silver, you know that wasn’t his reasoning for taking the circuitous route

  25. “Is it legal? Yes. Is it ethical? No.”

    It probably is legal, but that is in large part because Silver has spent the better part of the past 2 decades gaming the system in his favor as the Assembly lead

    If he wants to rack up miles by taking money and time wasting circuitous routings that possibly inconvenience other lawmakers (many of whome have far fewer options to get to/from Albany than him)…. and it wasn’t already legal…. he’ll make it such

  26. If the cheapest available fare allows the routing, then I agree it’s fair game IF he is allowed to fly. The time he’s wasting is negligible.

    I think an argument could definitely be made for government rates not earning FF miles, though. The miles are, essentially a rebate on the fare to reward loyalty. In an arena where government rates are fixed and airlines often pre-determined by route, these seem more like a political kick back.

    Government officials should fly on public dime only when necessary, and eliminating the mileage benefit would probably help curtail unnecessary flying.

    Also RE: “epic” 500 mile journeys … such is the perspective of somebody who thinks going 40-50 blocks means “getting out of town.”

  27. @ Alex: As a New Yorker I agree 100% with your statements. Seems those that find no fault in Silver’s position and his actions are undoubtedly fellow government (local, state and federal) workers. Guess it depends on which side of the trough you are on. Ethics have always been a problem in Albany, from the lowest levels right up to the governor, especially present-day. Remember New York calls itself “The Empire State”. More realistically, it should be called “The Empires State” —

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