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Senators continue to take pricey flights because they can

Some Canadian senators continue to fly high even though the upper chamber has been besieged with ongoing expense scandals. There are no rules preventing senators from buying the priciest airline flights possible at taxpayers' expense. The Senate has hinted that travel policy changes are coming soon, but has been short on details.

Canadian Senators can still buy the pricest flights but perks could end

Some senators continue to fly at high prices because there no rules restricting their flight choices. (Bloomberg News)

UPDATED: Read the latest on rule changes around flights for Senators

Some Canadian senators continue to fly high even though the upper chamber has been besieged with ongoing expense scandals.

There are no rules preventing senators from buying the priciest airline flights possible at taxpayers' expense. The Senate has hinted that travel policy changes are coming soon, but has been short on details.

House of Commons MPs, meanwhile, have to abide by certain rules. They must buy flight passes — tickets purchased in bulk and usually at a discount. Plus on short-haul flights, they are restricted to economy class. 

"I'm surprised the Senate hasn't adopted the same system as the House of Commons. There seems to be some resistance from some quarters," says Toronto public policy analyst and York University Prof. Ian Greene.

High-flying senators

The senators' travel policy advises using "sound judgment" when booking travel, but discount flight passes are optional.

According to her most recent expense report for the first three months of this year, Conservative Senator Betty Unger flew five times between Edmonton and Ottawa, costing taxpayers a total of $12,246. Her most expensive round-trip ticket was $5,692.

CBC News checked the current price for Air Canada business class flight passes for the same trips. According to the airline's website, the price for five flight credits is $6,242. Unger's total was $6,000 more than that price. 

According her most recent expense report, Senate Liberal Sandra Lovelace Nicholas spent $11,644 for four return trips from New Brunswick to Ottawa. Her priciest round trip ticket was $3,049.

Air Canada business class passes for travel between Ottawa and New Brunswick's four airports currently cost $8,470 for the same number of round trips. Lovelace Nicholas's total was $3,000 more than that price. 

CBC News repeatedly contacted the offices of both Lovelace and Unger for comment, but received no reply.

MPs fly cheaper

Given the current situation in the Senate, surely they should have resolved this long before.- Ian Greene, York University professor

While senators are free to fly with any type of ticket,not so for MPs.

As a result of a cost-cutting plan by the House's governing body, they can only fly business class between home base and Ottawa if they buy flight passes.

The rule came into effect on April 1, 2013, and it was forecast the policy change would save taxpayers millions of dollars.

On April 18 of that year, Conservative MP Andrew Scheer noted that savings generated by using passes has been significant.

"It's probably the largest contributor to the reduction in travel costs," he said.

For regular travel under two hours, MPs can only fly economy class. Even cabinet ministers can't fly business class on short-haul flights.

But senators face no such restrictions.

The perks continue

Senators also get an extra perk for their spouses. They can claim the expense of meals and incidentals such as bottled water, snacks, and dry cleaning for their partners when travelling.

Apparently the travel policy is under review.

"Changes to the policy are still in the draft stages, but should be announced shortly," Senate spokeswoman Nancy Durning told CBC News in an email. She did not explain what the changes might involve.

Even if reforms are coming, Greene says, "They're taking an awfully long time and that's disappointing. Given the current situation in the Senate, surely they should have resolved this long before."

Many senators do economize when travelling. Some even go beyond flight passes and choose economy fares. But Greene says there should be rules in place to ensure all senators spend taxpayer money prudently.

"In order to make sure all the senators do so in an equal fashion, I think rules need to be in place," he says.

Public pressure

Until then, public scrutiny appears to be helping. There has been a notable drop in some travel spending since senators began publicly posting their expenses last year and media reports exposed some top spenders.

Last year, CBC News noted that Conservative Senator Don Meredith spent between $1,138 and $1,401 on five business class return tickets for himself and his wife between Toronto and Ottawa in late 2013. That trip is a one-hour flight.

The same ticket in economy class could have been purchased for as little as $400.

The senator told CBC News he's now switched to economy class. According to his most recent travel expense report, his priciest round trip from Toronto to Ottawa cost just $673. 

Meredith says he doesn't mind cutting back. "I try to book early so I can get some good leg room. I'm a tall guy," he says.

He also believes the upper chamber should consider mandatory flight passes. "The Senate should look at all options to save travel money," he says.

Meredith claims the Senate is already saving money. He says he reverted to economy fares not because of public pressure but because the Senate recently banned flying business class on short-haul flights.

The Senate confirmed to CBC News that this is not the case, but hinted again at pending changes.

As for Meredith's apparent mistake, surely no one is complaining.

UPDATED: Read the latest on rule changes around flights for Senators

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sophia Harris

Business reporter

Sophia Harris covers business and consumer news. Contact: sophia.harris@cbc.ca

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