Defense officials aren't making the best use of the Patriot Express program for international official travel — and as a result have overpaid millions of dollars, according to a new report from the Defense Department inspector general.

Patriot Express flights are not always cheaper than commercial flights, but the program is an important component to support DoD readiness and force protection, auditors stated. And U.S. Transportation Command and the military services can take some steps to get more bang for their bucks.

Part of the problem is that 15,586 passengers — about 7 percent of the total booked on Patriot Express flights — didn't show up for their flights last year, according to the IG. Information was not immediately available on whether auditors had determined the cost of those no-shows.

Auditors recommended that the military services and TRANSCOM conduct a review to determine the main reasons why passengers don't show up for or cancel their flights, and they suggested that officials develop specific cancellation guidelines.

TRANSCOM officials responded that while they can determine how many passengers don't show up for flights, they have no way to know why those passengers don't show up. And officials pointed to the Defense Transportation Regulation, which already requires travelers to contact the transportation office and cancel or change reservations immediately if circumstances prevent the use of the reservation.

In addition, the services waste taxpayer dollars by booking passengers on commercial flights instead of using Patriot Express, the auditors found, in their review of five of the 11 Patriot Express passenger routes. The services don't have the controls to ensure their travelers use Patriot Express when traveling overseas, auditors found.

DoD guidance states that active-duty troops and defense civilians traveling internationally on official business — making overseas permanent change-of-station moves or on temporary duty travel — must use Patriot Express flights before considering commercial flights through the General Services Administration's City Pair Program, unless that would have a "documented negative critical mission impact."

International travelers should use the Patriot Express flights even if they can get a cheaper flight through a commercial carrier, or the commercial carrier is more convenient, under the guidance.

Patriot Express flights are contracted by TRANSCOM as part of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet program, established to provide an incentive for commercial air carriers to volunteer aircraft resources to support DoD air travel requirements. In return, the commercial carriers receive part of DoD's peacetime business. Patriot Express is the peacetime passenger component of the CRAF program.

Auditors recommended that the services issue guidance to ensure that transportation office staffers check the availability of a Patriot Express flight before booking commercial flights for overseas travelers, and hold the records open until Air Mobility Command personnel make reservations or issue a statement that seats are unavailable.

The service branches responded that they are updating their policies. The Army expects to have the guidance by August, and the Navy and Air Force by Sept.30.

By booking passengers on commercial flights instead of using Patriot Express, DoD must bear not only the cost of the commercial flight, but also the "sunk" or pre-paid cost of the empty Patriot Express seat. Auditors said that in two of the routes they reviewed, more than 50 percent of seats that TRANSCOM chartered and DoD paid for were not filled by passengers.

One of those routes, to and from Aviano Air Base in Italy and Ramstein Air Base in Germany, had 9,600 unfilled seats in 2014. However, transportation office employees booked 63,251 seats on commercial flights to Venice, Italy, and Frankfurt, Germany.

Yet Air Mobility Command personnel issued only 119 nonavailability statements for that route, required for transportation offices to book commercial travel when seats weren't available. If the 9,600 seats could have accommodated 9,600 of the 52,663 passengers who flew commercially to Frankfurt, DoD could have avoided a loss of up to $10.7 million on just that one part of one route, auditors said, adding that the exact loss could not be calculated.

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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