Q: Did Nancy Pelosi order up a 200-seat jet for her personal use?
A: The Democratic House speaker normally flies in a 12-seat Air Force jet, just as her Republican predecessor did. This rumor stems from a request by the House sergeant at arms, not Pelosi, for a jet large enough to reach California without refueling.
Is it true that Nancy Pelosi travels from California three times a week on a private jet (200-seat size) at a cost to the taxpayers of $60K per flight? If so, this would total $480K per month or $5.7M per year. This comes from taxpayer money? If true, how can we criticize others? Is this a good use of taxpayers’ hard-earned money and what about the carbon footprint?
Reports like this one, saying Pelosi routinely flies about in her own 757-size jet, have been floating around for almost two years. The claims were revived when Democrats complained that CEOs of the Big Three U.S. automakers had used their corporate jets to come to Washington to seek billions in federal aid. But the rumors are incorrect. Spokespeople for Pelosi and Andrews Air Force Base say that the speaker has used the big Air Force jet once, but she normally uses a much smaller plane, the same one used by the previous speaker of the House, Republican Dennis Hastert.
The spread of this rumor – and its first debunking – dates back to February 2007. At that time, the speaker of the House had had access to an Air Force craft for about five and a half years. Hastert had been issued a plane after Sept. 11, 2001, for security reasons (the speaker of the House is next in line after the vice president for presidential succession). Hastert used an Air Force C-20B, a small 12-seater based on the Gulfstream III, to travel to his home district in Illinois. (Ford and GM auto executives, incidentally, travel in the slightly larger Gulfstream IV.)
When Pelosi became speaker, House Sergeant at Arms Bill Livingood, according to his own account, worried that the small craft would be unable to travel to her home district of San Francisco without stopping to refuel. Livingood, who was first elected by a Newt Gingrich-led House in 1995, asked the Air Force and the Department of Defense about getting a bigger plane. He also requested clarifications of other rules regarding the aircraft – for instance, whether family members would be allowed to accompany Pelosi on her flights.
According to ABC News’ Jake Tapper, Capt. Herb McConnell of the Air Force said that the C-20B is sometimes able to make cross-country flights without refueling, but that it depends on headwinds. The much larger C-32, a military version of a Boeing 757 that’s usually used by the vice president and the first lady, is easily able to make a nonstop flight across the country. But it’s also on the lavish side. It’s not quite a 200-seater, but it does include 50 business-class seats and a full stateroom with a private lavatory and entertainment system.
We’ve seen no evidence, however, that Livingood specifically requested for Pelosi to have access to the C-32, which is the largest plane available at the 89th Airlift wing at Andrews Air Force Base. According to his statement, he requested a plane that was able to fly cross-country. Pelosi spokespeople at the time said that the speaker would be happy to use a smaller plane that could make a nonstop cross-country flight.
The Pentagon responded to this request by saying that it would make "every effort … to provide non-stop shuttle support," but that Pelosi’s aircraft access would depend on availability. Officials also clarified that Pelosi’s family members and other members of Congress could fly with her, but they would have to reimburse the government for their flights and food, paying the price of a coach ticket on a commercial airline. Pelosi would have to submit a written request for her family or other Congress members to accompany her on flights.
The Pentagon response stoked rumors that Pelosi had requested access to a posh personal craft for herself and anyone she wanted to bring along. Tapper traces the rumor back to House Minority Whip Roy Blunt, who called the C-32 "a flying Lincoln bedroom." That’s not a wholly inaccurate assessment of the plane (there’s even a pull-out bed!), but Blunt implied that Pelosi had expressly requested such extravagance. White House spokesman Tony Snow called this a "silly story," breaking with congressional Republicans who objected to Pelosi’s supposedly over-the-top request. At a press briefing, Snow reiterated that the conversations about plane travel were perfectly routine:
Snow, Feb. 7, 2007: After September 11th, the Department of Defense – with the consent of the White House – agreed that the Speaker of the House should have military transport. And so what is going on is that the Department of Defense is going through its rules and regulations and having conversations with the Speaker about it. So Speaker Hastert had access to military aircraft and Speaker Pelosi will, too.
Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly told FactCheck.org that the speaker does have access to military air travel. When she flies to her home district, she uses whatever Air Force craft is available. Daly told us that "they try to do a nonstop flight." But the plane Pelosi uses most often is the C-20B, and she has occasionally used even smaller planes. According to Daly, Pelosi once used the C-32 when no other planes were available, but she also has had to stop for refueling on at least one trip on a smaller aircraft. Pelosi’s family has traveled with her a few times, but they had to reimburse the government for the cost of their tickets, as stipulated in the Pentagon’s letter. Congress members who are traveling to California sometimes do the same. Pelosi only uses the jet to travel between Washington, D.C., and San Francisco on official business. For any other trip, she and her family use commercial airlines.
Update, December 22: After this story was posted, we received word from Eric Sharman, deputy chief of public affairs at Andrews Air Force Base, confirming what Pelosi’s spokesman told us about her aircraft use. Sharman said that Pelosi has in the past used the C-20B and the slightly larger C-37A, depending on availability, and that these may or may not be able to make a nonstop cross-country flight depending on conditions. He confirms that Pelosi has used the C-32 once and only once, when no other planes were available.
Update, March 23: The Web site Judicial Watch has made public e-mails to and from the Department of Defense regarding Pelosi’s travel requests. The conservative organization claims the e-mails show that Pelosi has made “unreasonable requests for military travel.” These e-mails, however, back up what we were told by Pelosi’s staff and by the Air Force, i.e., that Pelosi did not usually travel on the C-32 and that any family members or other members of Congress she brought with her on flights to her home district were asked to reimburse the cost of a coach ticket. The messages are about smaller planes, not the 757-size jet. Also, most of the e-mails are not about shuttles to and from Pelosi’s home district at all, but are about congressional delegations to other states and countries. Pelosi’s office oversees transportation for these trips for all members of the House, not just the speaker. For a little more detail on the Judicial Watch-released e-mails, see our post on the FactCheck Wire, "Plane False."
Also, we originally said the C-32 seats 50. But an Air Force fact sheet, while showing that it has 50 seats, says that it seats 45. We are resolving this contradiction in favor of the lower number.
– Jess Henig
Epstein, Edward. "Pelosi, Snow slam critics: ‘Silly story.’" San Francisco Chronicle. 8 Feb. 2007.
White House press briefings. "Press Briefing by Tony Snow." 7 Feb. 2007.
CNN. "House security chief: Pelosi didn’t ask for plane; I did." 9 Feb. 2007.
Washington Post. "Pelosi Catches Nonstop Flights Home." 6 Feb. 2007.
Greenwood, Tom. "Auto executives travel to D.C. by car, but is it cheaper?" Detroit News. 4 Dec. 2008.
Incantalupo, Tom. "Auto execs hope to drive home a point." Newsday. 25 Nov. 2008.