Pete Buttigieg was confronted over his use of taxpayer-funded flights on private planes while giving extensive testimony on his brief to the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure on Wednesday.
President Joe Biden’s transportation secretary was grilled on his use of private flights during the hearing by Republican representative for Missouri Eric Burlison. It came after Buttigieg’s department was accused of “dragging its feet” over disclosures on the amount the federal government had spent on non-commercial flights for him.
While Burlison appeared critical of Buttigieg, saying “not everyone gets to travel the way that you do,” the Biden administration cabinet member stressed that private flights accounted for around 3 percent of his travel since taking office, and were often used in cases where “it will save taxpayer money.”
The Department of Transportation (DOT) has faced repeated questions about the use of private planes. In February, GOP senator for Florida Marco Rubio wrote to DOT Inspector General Eric Soskin demanding a review of Buttigieg’s travel to see if it was in compliance with its governing regulations and procedures.
He cited a Fox News report which claimed that Buttigieg had used at least 18 private flights run by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and said that “while the total cost remains unknown,” the agency charges around $5,000 an hour for use of one of its jets.
At the time, a DOT spokesperson told the New York Post that it welcomed the independent audit to “put some of the false, outlandish, and cynical claims about the secretary’s mode of travel to rest,” adding that the use of FAA flights were usually used due to cost or security constraints.
At the end of August, Americans for Public Trust (APT)—a self-described nonpartisan organization—said that the FAA had repeatedly missed deadlines to fulfil Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests on the cost of the flights to the taxpayer.
The group added that it had initially made the requests in November 2022, before filing a lawsuit against the agency in June over the delayed response.
Asked about how often he used private planes, Buttigieg told Burlison: “I knew this might come up, so I brought some numbers. Since getting the job, I have taken—these are estimates, give or take a couple—but I’ve taken 638 flights.”
He added: “607 of them were commercial, 10 of them were on military aircraft such as Air Force One, and 21 were on FAA aircraft—representing about 3 percent of the flights.”
The transportation secretary said that he did not have the information to hand to respond to questions about the cost of the flights or the status of the FOIA process, but said: “I appreciate the chance to discuss this, because I can’t help get the sense that some people want to make it sound as if I don’t travel most of the time on commercial aircraft, which of course is untrue.”
“I think the irony for most people in my district is that they’re being told they’re going to have to convert to electric vehicles, to reduce their carbon footprint, and yet not everyone gets to travel the way that you do,” Burlison said.
“The way I usually travel is in economy class aboard an airliner like everybody else,” Buttigieg responded. “When we do it differently, it’s often because it will save taxpayer money.”
Newsweek approached the DOT via email for further comment on Thursday.
APT also said that after it had filed its lawsuit against the FAA, representatives had met with Bradley Silverman, a government lawyer, who it said had indicated that the aviation agency had not started the process of collecting information until after the legal challenge had been made.
The FAA is now expected to hand the documents over by the end of October. Newsweek approached the agency via email for comment on Thursday.