Defense Travel System under review

Congress has reservations about system’s cost, efficiency

The Defense Department is about to embark on an independent study of the Defense Travel System.

The review will address potential solutions to problems that have plagued DTS, including the feasibility of separating DTS’ financial infrastructure from the travel reservation process, authorizing the use of multiple travel reservation systems and reforming DOD travel policies.

The study, mandated by Congress in the 2007 National Defense Authorization Act, comes on the heels of three other recent reports critical of DTS. Congressional auditors and critical lawmakers maintain that the government has poured $500 million — twice the original price tag — into the program, without seeing the desired results.

DTS’ woes contrast starkly with the performance of the General Services Administration’s E-Government Travel Services. ETS, which provides automated travel services to federal civilian employees through contracts with three competing vendors, appears to be running smoothly.

DOD officials have suggested that the complexity of DOD travel policies could be the heart of the problem.

DTS includes two integrated components, both designed under contract by Northrop Grumman Mission Systems. Northrop is one of the three E-Travel vendors as well.
The front end of DTS is the booking agent used to make online reservations for travel. The back end is a financial system used to account for travel expenditures and to assure that travel arrangements conform to departmental policies.

“Most observers say the back-office functionality works reasonably well,” said David Chu, undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness, in testimony last month before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Investigations.

But Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a frequent critic of DTS, contended that “DTS can’t compete with commercial systems.

“The Defense Department should evaluate what is commercially available,” he said. “They should contract it out to Travelocity or another provider. They are out to make money and will do it better, faster and cheaper.”

Such a solution would require separating the front and back ends of the system, something easier said than done. “Certain data has to be passed from the front to the back end to make it a paperless travel system,” said McCoy Williams, the Government Accountability Office’s director of financial management and assurance.

The experience of GSA’s E-Travel demonstrates that separate booking and financial-management modules can be successfully integrated. Carlson Wagonlit Government Travel Inc.’s system combines its proprietary system for travel management, known as E2, with a separate booking tool called GetThere, developed and owned by Sabre Holdings Corp. of Southlake, Texas. Eleven agencies have hired San Antonio-based Carlson Wagonlit for E-Travel services.

“A traveler logging onto the E2 Web site is automatically linked to GetThere,” said Scott Guerrero, chief operating officer of CW Government Travel. “The system takes the information from the reservation and brings it back into E2 to create a minibudget. That information is routed to the approving official. When approved, the financial system funds the trip.”

Separating modules of an already integrated system presents a greater challenge, however. It is “technically possible” to separate the financial-management and reservation functions, said Janis Lamar, a Northrop Grumman spokesperson. But, she added, DOD then would likely need to “develop complex interfaces to maintain the integrity between travel and financial functions in DTS.”

Lamar noted that DTS includes more than 40 interfaces with accounting and disbursing systems maintained by the military services and Defense agencies.

In contrast to DTS, E-Travel has been well-received by civilian travelers, according to GSA spokesman Jon Anderson.

“Online booking of reservations is exceeding original projections,” he said. “Multiple agencies are exceeding 70 percent online booking.”

Seventy-four civilian agencies have awarded E-Travel task orders to one of the three vendors.

Anderson estimated that E-Travel has 150,000 users and that the system has issued more than 250,000 travel vouchers since it began in 2003.

Ironically, Northrop Grumman’s E-Travel system, GovTrip, uses the same booking engine technology as DTS, Lamar said.

Lamar blamed DTS’ problems on DOD’s multiplicity of travel policies, a factor that has increased the complexity of the code written into the system.

Chu, in his congressional testimony, echoed that sentiment, saying that travel policy management as well as the policies themselves needed updating.

“Commercial travel policy in the past in the Department of Defense has been a fragmented responsibility,” he said. Bringing “all travel policy oversight ... into my office ... can bring a more cohesive approach to the management of commercial travel in the department.”

Another difficulty with current DOD travel policy, Chu said, is that “we have a very myopic soda-straw view,” in which travel management is done “traveler by traveler.”

“I have learned enough about this system and its functionality to understand that a good deal of the expense ... on the front end has to do with embedding DOD travel policies,” Chu declared. “And so what I’m hoping we can bring to this whole set of issues is a broader view of ... how you have a cost-effective travel policy, not just a travel booking system. We look forward to conducting a thorough review of travel policy during calendar year 2007.”

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