Travel by an American first lady typically includes the military passenger jet that carries her and the children, Secret Service personnel to provide security, and a separate cargo plane to haul official vehicles.
First Lady Michelle Obama’s tour of Paris with her children included a convoy of 20 vehicles, according to news reports. She also moved by “motorcade” through London.
The full cost of such a trip would also include the expense of meals and lodging for Secret Service agents and possibly other staff.
In response to inquiries from CNSNews.com last week about the cost to taxpayers of the first lady’s European vacation, the White House did not provide a figure.
“Like previous administrations, the first lady will follow all the rules and regulations that are related to reimbursement for personal travel,” Michelle Obama’s press secretary Katie McCormick Lelyveld told CNSNews.com in a written response.
CNSNews.com inquiries to the White House on the cost of the trip were made by both phone and e-mail on June 30, July 1, July 2 and July 3.
Though White House rules for vacations, or unofficial travel, requires reimbursing the government the equivalent to the cost of what a commercial flight would have been, such a reimbursement would amount to only a fraction of the total cost of the first lady’s European trip.
For example, it would not include the cost of the security detail and the cargo plane that had to be deployed. Moreover, the cost of a commercial airline ticket is substantially less than the cost of operating a military passenger jet.
The Secret Service does not reveal its costs for protecting the first family.
“We do not discuss the cost of protection,” Secret Service spokesman Malcolm Wiley told CNSNews.com. “We will not be discussing the cost of any protection during travel or anything dealing with the cost of those we are mandated to protect.”
In late November 2008, after reports that executives of the financially troubled auto companies had been using private jets, then-President-Elect Obama said, "I thought maybe they're a little tone-deaf to what's happening in America right now."
The first lady and her daughters visited Paris and London in June, just shortly after Malia, who just turned 11, and Sasha, eight, had finished their first semester at Sidwell Friends School. They arrived in Paris on June 5 and returned to Washington on June 11, according to various media reports.
The Paris leg of the trip was filled with sightseeing, according to news accounts. They arrived on June 5 and visited the Eiffel Tower.
Part of this leg of the trip could arguably be considered official business, because Michelle Obama joined President Obama when he spoke at the ceremony honoring the 65th anniversary of the Normandy invasion, but the Associated Press at the time referred to the rest of the first lady’s sojourn in Paris as a “private” trip.
“Mrs. Obama and the girls met up with the president in Paris, on the last leg of his six-day tour of four Middle Eastern and European countries,” reported AP. “Obama left Paris for Washington, D.C., on Sunday morning, leaving his wife and children to enjoy the French capital on their own.
“Apart from the D-Day commemorations, Mrs. Obama's Paris visit was a private one, closed to the press. Photographers and camera crews caught images of her and the girls visiting the city's must-see monuments, including the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Pompidou Center modern art museum and Notre Dame cathedral,” the AP reported.
A Congressional Research Service (CRS) report from April 2007 provides guidelines for estimating what the first lady’s passenger flights alone cost in public money. That would not include the cost of the cargo flight, the Secret Service personnel or the cost for meals and lodging of the agents.
The report cited White House Military Office estimates from fiscal year 1998 that said the first lady’s passenger plane costs between $2,958 per hour to operate, while the Air Force estimates it to cost about to $10,789 per hour.
A flight from Washington to Paris would be seven hours and 30 minutes, according to Air Routing International, a company that guides corporate flight planners. A flight from Paris to London would be 40 minutes, and a flight from London to Washington would be seven hours and nine minutes.
If these flight hours are multiplied with the cost per hour estimates in the CRS report, the air travel cost would range from $22,185 to $80,917 for the trip from Washington to Paris. From Paris to London, it would range from $1,952.88 to $7,120.
The return trip from London to Washington would range from $20,706 to $75,523. The varying estimates are based on whether the White House Military Office estimates are used or the higher U.S. Air Force estimates are used.
Combined, the first lady’s air travel cost would have been $44,843.28, under the White House estimate or $163,560.50, under the Air Force estimate, but these estimates are for fiscal year 1998 dollars.
Adjusted for inflation to 2009 dollars, the cost to taxpayers of the Washington-to-Paris-to-London-to-Washington air travel would have ranged from $58,834.02 to $214,591.38, according to the inflation estimates by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Costs associated with these trips, however, generally involve much more than the operational costs of the specific passenger aircraft,” the CRS report says. “When the president travels abroad, several passenger and cargo aircraft accompany Air Force One. When the vice president or first lady make such a trip, a single cargo aircraft accompanies either of them.”
Rules distinguish official and unofficial travel by the first family and administration officials. Official business would include the president meeting with foreign leaders, while unofficial business would include the president traveling to campaign for a candidate of his party or a first family vacation.
“The travel polices of specific administrations concerning the reimbursement of expenses for unofficial travel generally are not publicly available,” the CRS report said.
“However, the Reagan administration established written guidelines in 1982 to determine when the president, vice president, and any assistants accompanying them on military aircraft travel at government expense and when they, or political organizations on whose behalf they travel, are to reimburse the government with the equivalent of the airfare that they would have had to pay had they traveled on commercial airlines,” the report added.
The cost of commercial first class airline tickets for one adult and two children from Washington to Paris, Paris to London and London to Washington would total up to $21,989, according to a July 3 search on Airfare.com, an online ticket ordering site.
‘Not go unnoticed’
In a June 7 NBC News report about the first lady’s tour of Paris, reporter Stephanie Gosk remarked, “A 20-car convoy does not go unnoticed at the Eiffel Tower, speeding past the Champs-Elysees or pulling up to the Pompidou Museum where today’s tour began.”
The president returned to Washington the day after he reportedly had a romantic dinner with the first lady at a French bistro. The president had lamb, the first lady had beef.
On Monday, June 8, Michelle Obama and the children made an unannounced visit to London.
“Michelle and the girls had stayed on in Paris after Barack returned to the U.S. at the end of this trip to Europe,” London’s The Mirror newspaper reported in the June 9 edition. “But after flying into the Stansted airport in the morning in one of the president’s official jets, it was straight to London.”
There the first lady met with her British counterpart, Sarah Brown, wife of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The prime minister’s office confirmed the visit to the Associated Press.
In London, Michelle, Sasha and Malia Obama saw the famous clock tower at the House of Parliament and a live performance of “The Lion King” musical. Then Sasha celebrated her eighth birthday on the set of the upcoming “Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows” movie.
Actor Daniel Radcliffe, who plays Harry Potter, and Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling reportedly met with the Obama family.
NBC News reported on June 10 that the first lady’s trip to London was supposed to be a “secret,” but the conspicuous movement of her motorcade made her presence in town known.
“It was supposed to be a secret trip, but the motorcade gave it away. First lady Michelle Obama, daughters Sasha and Malia, and their grandmother made a whirlwind trip to London minus dad, who flew home on Sunday.”
They also went on a guided tour of Buckingham Palace, including parts of the residence, the Associated Press reported, citing an unnamed source. On June 11, they returned to Washington.