The Energy 202: Pruitt says flying first-class is safer. But some airline safety experts aren't so sure.

Thursday , February 15, 2018 - 8:00 AM

Dino Grandoni

(c) 2018, The Washington Post.

The Environmental Protection Agency says that Scott Pruitt has traveled first-class on flights both domestically and internationally over the last year because it is simply safer for him.

But neither representatives for the EPA nor Pruitt himself in newspaper and television interviews this week have fully disclosed the nature of the threats against him. The EPA is also refusing to release the written waiver that allows Pruitt to fly regularly in first or business class. On Wednesday afternoon, the agency backed away from its earlier statements about a single waiver, saying it actually submits the same security-related waiver for each trip Pruitt takes.

The agency also has not spelled out the logic behind its rationale for the flights: Why does the EPA think first-class travel is safer than sitting in coach in the first place?

Airline safety and security experts were left struggling to explain the EPA’s rationale without a full explanation from the agency. One pilot was outright incredulous.

Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III, the retired pilot who once landed a damaged Airbus A320 in the Hudson River and who is now an aviation and safety expert at CBS News, had just this to say by email: “First class is not safer than economy.”

There is no reason to believe that sitting at the front of a plane is safer than sitting toward the back should the plane crash, said another aviation expert.

“I cannot think of anything” that would make sitting upfront safer, said Harro Ranter, chief executive of the Aviation Safety Network. “In an actual accident, best chances of survival are usually in the rear.”

Security experts said there are a range of reasons why Pruitt and his staff might think paying for first-class is worth it when it comes to the administrator’s safety. And some supported the idea that senior government officials might be better off paying for more expensive tickets.

Being seated up front helps “facilitate ease of entry and exit” for a government official, said Martin Rottler, an airline operations expert at the Center for Aviation Studies at Ohio State University. And “with the business-class cabin,” he added, “you’re dealing with a smaller number of people.”

That argument suggests that sitting in first class means the official needs to interact with fewer passengers. As anyone who follows the news knows, there have been plenty of examples of unruly passengers clashing with flight crews and even one incident where Ivanka Trump was confronted by an angry passenger on JetBlue.

Indeed, Pruitt alluded to those concerns in an interview after The Post revealed his pricey travel habits with WMUR-TV in Manchester, N.H. “There have been instances, unfortunately, during my time as administrator, as I’ve flown and spent time, of interaction that’s not been the best,” Pruitt said, according to the Associated Press. “And, so, ingress and egress off the plane ... that’s all decisions all made by our (security) detail team, by the chief of staff, by the administration.”

But a few unpleasant interactions with fellow passengers isn’t enough of a reason for taxpayers to pay a higher price for Cabinet officials’ flights, congressional Democrats and even some Republicans said Wednesday.

“I would be embarrassed to get on a plane, sit down in first class and have my constituents pass me by and see me,” Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., told Politico. Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., told the publication coach “would be sufficient” for Pruitt, adding “I’m always hauling my bags onto the plane every weekend.”

The EPA’s inspector general has investigated some of the threats made against Pruitt, including “a threatening post” on Twitter from an Arkansas resident and an “obscene postcard” from someone from Ohio, according to E&E News.

Several House Democrats demanded that the inspector general investigate the waivers for Pruitt’s first-class travel, too. A tweet from the Democrats on the Committee on Energy and Commerce: “It is unclear how, in each of these instances, more costly domestic travel, or where one is seated on an aircraft, provides additional security as compared to more economical options.”

Gina McCarthy, Pruitt’s predecessor as EPA administrator, confirmed to The Washington Post through a spokeswoman Wednesday thar she did not receive waivers for top-of-the-line travel, despite, like Pruitt, making controversial decisions.

Chris Lu, who as former President Barack Obama’s White House Cabinet secretary served as the main liaison between the president and Cabinet heads, was unimpressed with the administration’s rationale for Pruitt’s travel.

“Pruitt’s explanation is absurd and assumes that it’s easier to protect someone in first class than in economy,” Lu told Post reporters Brady Dennis and Juliet Eilperin. “Members of Congress who routinely fly coach should be offended by his lavish travel habits.”

There’s one more reason a Cabinet official may be allowed to buy premium seats. Government policy allows such purchases for flights of 14 hours or more so that high-level officials are fresh for meetings right after landing.

“I wouldn’t be personally obsessed with that,” Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, said of international flights. His group sought information about Pruitt’s travel through Freedom of Information Act requests.

“But first class to La Guardia? Really?” he added, referring to a $1,641.43 ticket the EPA purchased for Pruitt to fly from the District to New York last June.

“It’s 35 minutes.”

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