Kelly Loeffler says she uses private jet to save taxpayers, but took publicly-funded flights

Kelly Loeffler and her husband bought a $10 million jet — but taxpayers are still covering her flights to D.C.

Published December 21, 2020 6:00AM (EST)

U.S. Senator Kelly Loeffler speaks at a Defend The Majority campaign event attended by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on December 17, 2020 in Columbus, Georgia. (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)
U.S. Senator Kelly Loeffler speaks at a Defend The Majority campaign event attended by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on December 17, 2020 in Columbus, Georgia. (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

Three days after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution broke a story in which a spokesperson for Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., said she used her private jet to "save taxpayer money," the unelected Republican took a taxpayer-funded commercial flight from Atlanta to Washington. Three days later, she took another one home.

In all, Loeffler has taken at least two dozen taxpayer-backed commercial flights back and forth to Washington after claiming her personal airplane was an asset that benefited the people she served, according to biannual reports published by the secretary of the Senate.

The latest of those reports covers expenditures up to Sept. 1; it is unclear how many times Loeffler has flown on commercial aircraft since then.

Senators and their staff can avail themselves of public funds for travel that is deemed necessary to their government jobs. Conversely, ethics rules allow Loeffler to use her private plane for government business as long as she doesn't expense it to her government account. Aides told the Atlanta paper in February that the "majority" of her private flights are her trips between Atlanta and Washington, adding that the multimillionaire "occasionally" flies commercial to D.C. — in coach class, believe it or not.

At the time of that report, however Loeffler had not reported taking any commercial flights at all, according to Senate records, although her staff appears to have taken several.

In all, Loeffler's airfare cost taxpayers $3,665.45, a sum that would likely be substantially higher in a normal year, as the steep drop in demand brought about by the coronavirus pandemic has forced major airlines to make dramatic price cuts.

Loeffler's expense reports show a significant difference in cost between trips taken in the months of May and June, when airfares had cratered, suggesting that Loeffler has not always flown in coach class, as she has claimed.

For instance, the senator's May 4 flight to Washington cost $87.31, and her return to Atlanta on May 7 cost the same amount, to the penny. For her next round trip to the nation's capital, the first leg cost $233.36, but the return once again cost $87.31. These discrepancies, in those same amounts (with one exception), hold true for all 16 taxpayer-funded flights in May, June and July, when average fares between the two cities were almost always under $100.

In July, Loeffler said in a Fox News interview that she had been flying on Delta Airlines, which is based at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, one of the the busiest in the country. Delta's PACs and CEO made maximum donations to Loeffler's campaign at the end of March, as she was working on the CARES Act.

Salon reported in April that airlines that gave large amounts to President Trump's re-election were among the first recipients of corporate bailout money included in that $2.2 trillion relief bill. Delta alone got $5.4 billion.

If Loeffler had indeed used her private jet for the "majority" of her flights to Washington, she would be squeezing in an additional 25 trips, minimum. But because the senator and her husband, Jeff Sprecher, chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, chartered their plane under a company that offers anonymity, the jet is "not available for public tracking per request from the owner/operator," according to a database on the site FlightAware.

Loeffler's spokesperson claimed last February that not only did the senator use her $10 million 2010 Bombardier Challenger 300 — which she and Sprecher bought after her appointment to the Senate — to save her constituents money, but that she paid for it "out of her pocket." It appears possible, however, that the couple joined the "frenzy" of Wall Street money managers who leapt at a loophole in the 2017 Republican tax bill that turns private jets into flying tax shelters: The provision allows a company to write off the full price of a new or used airplane against the company's earnings.

(Loeffler's financial disclosure forms also show that Sprecher owns a Fulton County jet hangar worth $1 million, which pulls in somewhere between $100,001 and $1 million in annual rent.)

Loeffler has also used her private jet for campaign-related trips as short as an 18-minute hop from a central Georgia town to Savannah, on the Atlantic coast. 

The senator's former Republican opponent in the 2020 primary, Rep. Doug Collins, frequently invoked the jet on the campaign trail in an effort to paint Loeffler, by far the wealthiest member of Congress, as out of touch with Georgia voters.

"Who buys a $30 million jet in secret then posts a picture with their new KIA on Facebook around the same time?" a Collins spokesperson told the Journal Constitution in February. "That's all you need to know about Kelly Loeffler."

Next month, Loeffler faces a runoff against her Democratic opponent, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, who grew up in government housing and later became pastor at Atlanta's historic Ebenezer Baptist Church. Polls suggest the race will be very close.

By Roger Sollenberger

Roger Sollenberger was a staff writer at Salon (2020-21). Follow him on Twitter @SollenbergerRC.

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