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Houston Mayor Annise Parker halts city use of Advantage Travel firm
Houston travel firm flying away with tax dollars
By Steve Miller
The Houston travel agency had an enviable arrangement, not bound by a contract and making big bucks from $35 fees tacked on to every ticket. Parker says the city should be booking its own tickets online.
Houston Mayor Annise Parker has halted the use of a Houston travel agency that added a $35 fee to every flight booked over the past several years, boosting travel costs by tens of thousands of dollars in a five-year span.
The move comes after an investigation by Texas Watchdog, which has found that the city paid more than $90,000 in booking fees to Advantage Travel, even though the firm had no contract.
The levy in some cases increased the cost of an airfare by 60 percent or more in an age when most business and leisure travelers book flights themselves through price-comparison websites like Expedia, a review of records from July 2005 to July 2010 shows.
“I will suggest that we reconsider our entire travel process,” Parker said. “There is no use to use [a travel agency] any more with electronic ticketing. We should be booking our own flights.”
The mayor said she was “mystified” by the use of any travel agency for city business, adding that it is an “artifact of early days."
The move is another in Parker's efforts to exercise fiscal stewardship. Since she took office in January, the city has trimmed library hours, increased the employee-paid portion of health insurance premiums and increased water rates.
Dropping the travel agency will end up costing the city more, said Advantage Vice President Carol Embesi, who said that rank-and-file employees often don't know the tricks to getting better fares, and some will game the system in order to get upgrades
"I think the taxpayer saves in the long run," Embesi said of her agency's services. Embesi and city officials did not know how long the agency had been on board, but Embesi said it was at least 10 years. There was no bidding process to secure Advantage's services, Embesi said.
She said the city has used her travel agency so it does not have to hire a full-time travel coordinator.
The city’s accounting system folded the travel booking fees into the overall fare, making it impossible to track exactly how much was being paid in Advantage fees versus the base airfare in the electronic record. Texas Watchdog estimated the fees paid to Advantage based on records of more than 2,600 flights taken over the last five years.
The mayor's office said there are no signed agreements or deals with Advantage Travel. Yet until Friday, Advantage had booked the hundreds of trips taken by city employees each year.
Parker blamed the lack of oversight on “bureaucratic inertia." She said she was aware the city used a travel agency during her time as city controller, starting in 2003, but had apparently not looked closely at the arrangement until Texas Watchdog's investigation.
check to Advantage
Each invoice had to go through the controller's office for payment. Still, Parker said she was befuddled by the deal. Parker served on City Council for six years prior to winning the controller's post.
“I don’t understand how it got to this,” she said. “This is just something no one ever thought of.”
Those taking city flights booked by Advantage ranged from police officers, library employees and city health officials traveling for training to then-Mayor Bill White, whose occasional first-class tickets were also subject to the fee.
Parker used Advantage for a $1,306 flight to Washington, D.C., in March, records show. She said it was her first flight as mayor and the last booked through Advantage.
"My assistant noticed the process," Parker said. "And she did all the work and looked up the fare, and they issued the ticket. And we never did it that way again."
When she was controller, her employees also used the service.
Texas Watchdog reviewed city travel records under the Texas Public Information Act. Among the findings in the 18,000 pages of records:
* One fare to Washington was cancelled due to inclement weather, but the city still had to pay the booking fee. When flights are rescheduled, the city pays another $35 fee to Advantage.
* City Council members Ed Gonzalez and Wanda Adams used Advantage for a trip to San Antonio in November. Gonzalez said he was aware of Advantage's services but that the council's administrative staff would have handled his booking so he wasn't privy to the details. Adams did not respond to an e-mail.
* When an employee uses airline credits for flights, the $35 fee is still assessed. In one case, a flight cost $57, but the $35 fee boosted that by 61 percent. When then-Mayor White cashed in a credit, his $19.99 flight almost tripled in cost when the $35 fee was added.
* Five city health workers flew to Austin for a conference in November 2006. Booking fees represented 25 percent of the base ticket flight cost.
* The city paid $15 for an “after-hours charge” when White needed travel assistance in February 2007.
The city sometimes used Advantage to book hotels. In April 2007, White stayed at the Sonesta Bayfront Hotel in the Miami area and paid $35 to Advantage to book it. Also staying at the resort were two of White’s staffers. White did the same thing for a trip to Washington, paying $35 per room for the Mandarin Oriental Hotel reservation.
"Bill White didn't travel much and paid for most of his travel personally, to save the city money. As a result, the staff used a travel agency relatively infrequently," a spokesman for White, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, said in a e-mail.
The city also flew groups of four or more to nearby destinations including Austin, San Antonio and Corpus Christi. In some of those cases, the round-trip airfares were $100 or less, but the fee added 50 percent or more to the ticket.
The city’s travel policy was updated Sept. 21 with no change to flight booking procedures. The policy does not mention use of a travel agency.
“E Ticketing is the preferred method of purchase whenever possible,” the policy states. It also says if an employee needs to change a flight, “the lowest possible fare should be obtained.” But there was no language addressing any penalty for failing to comply.
Advantage is also used by the Houston Independent School District. Texas Watchdog in June documented how the agency charges a service fee to every ticket the district books. Officials at HISD maintained that using the agency provided discounts, although many travel records inspected by Texas Watchdog showed little savings. And despite HISD's position that it was reducing its payments, the cost of Advantage fees were on pace as of August to increase more than threefold this year over last, when the district paid the company almost $6,200.
Following Texas Watchdog's reports, HISD vowed to change its travel policies. But the district continues to use the firm and has made no move to change the arrangement or its travel guidelines.
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