A plan to open military flights up to more retirees will likely force active-duty personnel to wait even longer for flights and clog the already over-burdened Defense Department's Space-Available travel program, according to the Government Accountability Office.
In a Sept. 10 report to senior members of the House and Senate Armed Service committees, the GAO wrote that congressional plans to expand the eligibility of the Space-A Travel program "adversely affect uniformed service members, for whom DOD created the program."
Space-available travel has been expanded in the past to include retirees and, in some cases, military dependents.
Recent bills have been introduced in Congress to further expand the program to include international travel for "gray-area retirees" such as reservists who are entitled to retirement pay at age 60 and their dependents. Widows and widowers of active duty personnel and reservists and their dependents have also been included.
Air Mobility Command officials have said this will create problems since "a lower-priority passenger who already has a seat cannot be rotated off of an en-route flight at a subsequent stop by a space-available traveler in a higher-priority category. Therefore, the higher-priority uniformed service member may have to take leave while waiting to obtain a space-available seat on another flight or purchase a ticket with a commercial airline," the GAO report states.
More than 500,000 passengers used space-available travel from 2009-2011, according to Defense Department data. The GAO, however, said there were close to 185,000 unused seats during that timeframe.
"Unused seats may be on routes with less-desirable destinations or during less-popular travel months," the GAO wrote. "DoD officials stated that demand for space-available seats during the summer months is generally higher than seats available."
The GAO said in 2011, approximately 194,000 of the 251,000 seats open for space-available travel were used, leaving about 57,000 seats unused.
GAO investigators estimated that about 20,000 travelers will not be able to obtain space-available seats if the program is expanded and Space-Available seating maintains the same capacity it did in 2011 with the same number of unused seats.
More travelers waiting for space-available flights will also "increase the burden on terminal personnel." Increasing the number of potential passengers means more "terminal personnel assistance for documentation review, check-in processes, baggage handling, security screening, responding to travel questions, and transportation to and from the aircraft," according to the report.
Air Mobility leaders also said adding to the number of space-available travelers means additional "maintenance costs for waiting areas, restrooms, and vending machines," the report said.
The plan to expand eligibility of the travel program comes at a time of when DoD is facing $500 billion in across-the-board budget reductions at the beginning of 2013 if lawmakers don't find a way to get rid of the so-called sequestration cuts.