The Costs When Presidents Travel for Campaign Activities: An Update

This past July, NTUF calculated the potential costs involved regarding the use of Air Force One to transport President Obama and Hillary Clinton to a campaign event of hers in North Carolina. 

Whenever a President travels to participate in a political event, the campaign or political committee sponsoring the activity must reimburse the government for a portion of the transportation costs. While it costs $180,118 per flight hour to operate Air Force One, a modified Boeing 747, the reimbursement is based on the cost to charter a comparable aircraft to accommodate those participating on the trip.* Often, a President’s travels will include a mix of campaign events and official events directly related to the duties of the Office. In such cases, the amount that must be reimbursed is based on a formula tracking the time spent on political versus official activities. 

The political and campaign committees must report their reimbursements in filings to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), though how the payments are classified in their filings is not standardized. Lori Ann LaRocco of CNBC reported that: 

The labeling of the use of, and payment for, Air Force One has varied with past presidential candidates who have used the 747 for campaign travel. Obama and President George W. Bush identified their payments for the aircraft’s use under a category other than “travel.” In the 2012 filings for the Obama campaign, the use and payment of Air Force One was listed as, “reimbursement to travel offset account.” In 2004, the Bush campaign listed the disbursements as “White House airlift operations.” All of Hillary Clinton’s plane expenditures during the campaign have been categorized as under “travel.”

A search of the FEC’s database shows that the Clinton campaign made four payments totaling $36,200 on August 1 and August 18 labeled as “DNC Travel Offset.” NTUF assumes these are related to the July trip. There are no additional details explaining exactly what services the expenses covered. In the run up to election day, the President made additional trips on behalf of the Clinton campaign; these expenses will be reported in future filings to the FEC.

This reimbursement amount is nevertheless a pittance of the total costs involved for the use of Air Force One. NTUF estimated that the July flight from Washington, DC to North Carolina cost over $400 thousand. Moreover, there are additional costs whenever the President travels that are not included in the reimbursement formula. For example, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported recently that a four-day trip by President Obama to Illinois and Florida in 2013 cost the Department of Defense $2.8 million and the Department of Homeland Security $767 thousand. 

The GAO report is significant because it represents the first time since 2000 that the government watchdog agency has reported on presidential travel costs. While this is a step in the right direction for transparency, more progress is needed, especially regarding presidential travel abroad where the costs per trip are even higher.


* The reimbursement is not the cost of a seat on a commercial flight as we reported in July based on information in a Congressional Research Service report.