81.31

OPINION NO. 81-31

An opinion has been requested from the State Aviation Administration (SAA) concerning whether courtesy air transportation may be accepted by agency personnel in connection with their provision of briefings on Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI) at airline reservation centers.

This request is presented by the Administrator of the SAA. He states that in connection with SAA's efforts to encourage expanded use of BWI Airport, passenger service personnel from the agency conduct briefings at the reservation centers of air carriers. The reservation centers are centralized ticketing facilities through which airlines handle reservations for various large regions throughout the country. SAA personnel appear at the centers, providing information on BWI to ticket agents who may have little familiarity with the Baltimore/Washington area or BWI and its facilities. The Administrator indicates that these briefings are viewed by SAA and the Department of Transportation as an important aspect of the efforts to expand and enhance air transportation through BWI.

The briefings usually take about a half day and, depending on the location of the center, may or may not involve overnight lodging and related expenses. The Administrator indicates that the expenses have heretofore been borne entirely by the SAA, partly because of Federal rules prohibiting courtesy transportation by the airlines. This Federal ban has recently been abolished, however, and given the extremely tight State travel budget, SAA would like to take advantage of the courtesy transportation now available from the airlines. He states that all other expenses will continue to be paid with State funds. He expressed his belief that arrangements could be made to avoid any individual travel arrangements between SAA employees and the air carriers.

The relationship of the air carriers to SAA is primarily that of a tenant. Regulation of the airline routes, tariffs, etc. continues to be largely pre-empted by Federal law, though Subtitle 5 of the Transportation Article, Annotated Code of Maryland, sets forth some regulatory authority vested in the SAA. In its role as the manager of the Maryland airport, the Administrator states that his agency generally works with carriers to promote use of BWI; the carriers then procure the required certifications from the Federal regulatory agency, without any involvement by SAA. Once a carrier is certificated, it must be provided counter, terminal, and other space at the airport facility. This space is provided under long term (10-15 year) lease arrangements including terms and conditions that are identical for all airlines.

The issue here is application to this situation of the prohibitions against acceptance of gifts by State employees under §3-106 of the Ethics Law (Article 40A, §3-106, Annotated Code of Maryland). This section prohibits an official or employee from accepting gifts from a person who:

1) Is doing or seeking to do business of any kind with his agency;
2) Is engaged in activities that are regulated or controlled by his agency; or
3) Has financial interests that may be substantially and materially affected, in a manner distinguishable from the public generally, by the performance or nonperformance of his official duty.

Since the air carriers involved in the briefing program either have or are seeking to do business with SAA and would appear, to some extent, to be under the regulatory authority of SAA, acceptance of gifts from them by SAA employees would appear to be within the general prohibition of §3-106. However, we believe that under the facts presented here, the courtesy travel is more appropriately viewed as a gift to the State agency, rather than individual employees. There are several SAA employees in the passenger service division of the agency's Office of Information and Trade Development that do the reservation center briefings. They are persons who are not involved in the regulatory or contract aspects of SAA's relationship with the airlines. Further, as the briefing program is set up, invitations are not issued by the airlines to employees; individuals scheduled to conduct particular briefings are identified by their supervisors, and tight control over travel arrangements is retained by the SAA. In fact all expenses other than the air travel are to be paid by SAA.

Under these circumstances, we believe that the provision of courtesy travel by the airlines should not be viewed as gifts to the employees accruing to their personal benefit. Rather, we conclude that provision of courtesy travel to the agency under the tightly controlled circumstances presented here is a donation to the State agency not intended to be addressed by the provisions of §3-106 of the Ethics Law.

Herbert J. Belgrad, Chairman
    Reverend John Wesley Holland
    Betty B. Nelson
    Barbara M. Steckel

Date: July 22, 1981