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Solving the puzzle of lawmakers’ differing airfares

Perhaps the most puzzling part of the Associated Press report last week that showed two North Idaho lawmakers were the biggest spenders on travel during the most recent legislative session was the big disparity between what various North Idaho lawmakers charged the state for their airfare – when they all ride on the same plane.

The North Idaho lawmakers take the Southwest flight that goes from Boise to Spokane at 5:45 p.m. Fridays, and from Spokane back to Boise at 5:10 p.m. Sundays.

I’ve now gotten to the bottom of it. Three North Idaho lawmakers always or almost always fly “Business Select” on Southwest, according to state records obtained through a public records request; a fourth chose that option for two of his five flights. That makes their fares higher, at $460 round-trip, plus gives them perks like priority boarding, a priority security lane, a complimentary premium drink and double mileage rewards.

Sen. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, traveled Business Select for every one of his 13 flights home for the weekend during the session; his average flight cost was $460. Rep. Kathy Sims, R-Coeur d’Alene, did the same for every one of her five flights home during the session; her average was the same. And Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, billed the state for that class for some of his flights, ending up with an average flight cost of $441 for his 13 flights. Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, chose Business Select for two of his five flights home, for an average per-flight cost of $322.

Nonini and Barbieri were the top spenders because they also flew home the most often; lawmakers are entitled to one trip home per week.

Nonini said he committed long ago to return to his district every weekend. “I think that’s important, for me to come home every weekend to see constituents and see my wife.” He noted that over the years, some lawmakers have chosen to make the long drive back and forth to North Idaho each weekend; with mileage paid, that actually costs the state more.

At the other end of the spectrum, the North Idaho lawmakers spending the least on their flights were Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, whose four flights home during the session averaged just $153; and Rep. Ron Mendive, R-Coeur d’Alene, whose 12 flights home averaged $230. Rep. Eric Redman, R-Post Falls, wasn’t far behind, with his six flights showing an average cost of $237.

So how do they do it? Southwest offers three options for fares: “Wanna Get Away” fares, that are available only with at least a two-week advance purchase, offer big discounts and currently run $270 to $300; “Anytime” fares, which are refundable and don’t require an advance purchase, but run $430; and “Business Select” at $460.

To get cheaper fares, lawmakers must take a gamble, purchasing their tickets home weeks in advance, knowing that if a Friday session runs long, they’ll have to change their plans. The “Wanna Get Away” fares aren’t refundable, but the funds are “reusable,” meaning they can be applied to another flight, and the lawmakers have to pay the difference in the fares.

“I was waiting to kind of find out what my schedule was, and then buying my ticket,” said Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, whose 10 flights home averaged $369. “There’s somewhat of a balance there, because you never know when you’re going to be required to stay back down in Boise, and obviously don’t want to be carrying too much of a balance on your credit card.” His final flight of the session came in at the $460 Business Select rate. “It’s probably because that’s all that was left,” Malek said. “Toward the end of the session there, it was really hard to get flights. … I never intentionally buy that, if I can avoid it.”

The price difference between “Anytime” and “Business Select” fares is $30 per round trip. But Malek said, “I think that I should travel as cheaply as I can.”

House Speaker Scott Bedke said, “The direction that they’re given is that they’re supposed to travel in the most economical means available. That recognizes that the most economical means isn’t always available, and sometimes the most economical means is not available at the last minute.”

Overall, he said, “They’re to be responsible with the taxpayers’ money. They’re also entitled to a trip home every week.”

Even though there’s just a small price difference for “Business Select,” Bedke said choosing fares that include perks could send the wrong message when public money is involved. “We should never be able to capitalize on our elected official status,” he said.

Nonini said he’s always left his plane reservations to his wife, and wasn’t aware of the difference. Barbieri couldn’t be reached for comment on Friday.

Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, averaged $315 for his 11 flights home; and Rep Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, averaged $395 for her five flights home.

Sen. Mary Souza, R-Coeur d’Alene, whose 11 flights home averaged $357, said, “I try to be as careful as possible, but often the Friday-Sunday flights are heavily booked and you have to take what you can get. The prices are much higher on those days. Alaska Air is starting a direct flight from Boise to Spokane in August, I believe, so maybe the prices and availability will be better next session.”

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