It’s hardly a secret that Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) likes to fly private. It was just last April when it came out that Sinema’s campaign had spent nearly $70,000 on charter flights over the last four years.
What hasn’t been reported, however, is Sinema’s penchant for using a very different source of funding to fly private: taxpayers.
Since 2020, Sinema has spent roughly $210,000 of her U.S. Senate office budget on private charter flights for herself and her staff, according to publicly available records—a high sum on an expense most lawmakers rarely, if ever, make.
Given that senators have limited annual budgets to fund their operations, Sinema’s use of private flights also raises questions about why she is prioritizing that expense over other essential functions of her office.
The Arizona senator has booked at least 11 private plane trips since 2020, with five of them coming in 2023, when she spent $116,000 on chartered air travel. According to the reports, nearly all of the flights were charted for travel within Arizona, as the senator and several of her staffers hit several cities and towns around the state on one- or two-day trips.
By comparison, Sinema’s home-state colleague, Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ), appears to have never used his Senate budget for privately chartered flights, even though he regularly travels to the same places in the state that Sinema does.
In most instances, Sinema flew with Southwest Air Charter, a company based in the Phoenix suburb of Chandler, which offers what it calls the “privacy and privilege” of chartered flights to customers around the U.S. Southwest.
In one case, Sinema flew private between Washington, D.C., and Arizona—a journey that lawmakers typically fly on commercial airlines.
On Aug. 8, 2023, Sinema chartered a flight for herself and four staffers from Washington to the Grand Canyon, with Monarch Air Group, at a cost of $50,250. The Florida-based company, which offers luxury jets for cross-country trips, bills itself as a “leading provider of on-demand air charter and private jet solutions for Fortune 500 companies, government agencies and discerning individuals around the globe.”
The flight occurred on the same day Sinema joined President Joe Biden, federal officials, and other Arizona politicians for a ceremony at the Grand Canyon, where he signed into law new protections for the national park.
Senators receive annual taxpayer-funded budgets and, for the most part, they are granted significant discretion to spend it how they see fit. There are no rules against flying private—and some members, largely from rural states, do so in rare situations—but there are several reasons why it is problematic.
For one, senators’ budgets are limited, and flying private is incredibly expensive. In 2023, Sinema’s annual budget authorization was $4.1 million—a sum that has to cover every expense of her office, including the salaries of her staff, her weekly travel between Arizona and Washington, office supplies, and everything in between.
Typically, congressional offices are careful about where they can save money, knowing that doing so makes it possible to hire another staffer to handle constituent help requests or to craft legislation in an important issue area.
The amount that Sinema spent on private planes in 2023 alone is greater than the current annual salaries of all but just a few of her most senior staffers, according to the congressional database Legistorm. Just the cost of Sinema’s private flight to the Grand Canyon is only a couple of grand short of covering the annual salary of her deputy press secretary or her military and veterans affairs representative.
Jordan Libowitz, of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told The Daily Beast that Sinema’s use of valuable taxpayer dollars to fund her private air travel is worthy of scrutiny from her constituents.
“This is one of those things that does raise the question of, is this the best way to manage the budget?” he said. “Could she be doing more for the state otherwise?”
There are also the optics of Sinema’s frequent flying. Typically, voters harshly judge politicians who fly private—even on their own dime, like former Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), whose jet use became a toxic narrative in her 2018 re-election defeat. To tap taxpayer money for chartered flights is understood by members and staff to be a terrible look, which may be the biggest reason they don’t do it.
Sinema’s office did not respond to questions from The Daily Beast about why she has chartered so many private flights.
But for Sinema, who is seemingly quite willing to risk scrutiny and public backlash if it means cashing in a perk or clearing time on her schedule, the use of private taxpayer-funded planes is part of a well-established broader pattern.
Last year, The Daily Beast reported on how Sinema—an avid marathoner and triathlete—appeared to schedule fundraisers near the sites of her races, allowing her to technically write off the expenses of air travel, meals, and luxury hotel stays to her campaign.
Also last year, The Daily Beast reported that Sinema’s campaign and office paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in security expenses to one contractor, who has no other clients but a personal connection to the senator, an arrangement that raised red flags for ethics watchdogs.
Drawing on federal campaign finance filings, the New York Post reported that Sinema’s campaign spent heavily on luxury items, including over $20,000 on wine-related expenses alone.
The taxpayer funded private jet use, said Libowitz, “plays into this larger thing we’ve seen with her, where she tends to go right up to the line of what she’s able to do with spending other people’s money in the way she would best prefer.”
“She’s seemed pretty good at finding the ways to do it that people are going to see and are not going to like but, generally, don’t rise to the level of being an actual legal problem,” he continued. How much of a political problem it all will be for Sinema remains to be seen. The former Democrat has not announced yet whether she is running for re-election in 2024, though she has drawn challengers on both sides, Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ) and GOP candidate Kari Lake. The deadline for candidates to file for the race is April 8.
While Sinema has been tight-lipped, she certainly is laying the fundraising groundwork to run. In the first weekend of March, her personal political action committee—titled Getting Stuff Done PAC—is hosting a donor retreat in Phoenix, according to an invitation obtained by The Daily Beast. The suggested giving levels for the “weekend with Senator Kyrsten Sinema” are $5,000 for political action committees and $5,000 for individuals.
The fundraiser may be one of the clearest signs yet that Sinema does plan on running.
In every opinion poll of the race so far, Sinema has placed third behind Gallego and Lake; the only difference is whether it is by a large or small margin. Although she retains appeal to centrists, polls have shown Sinema is unpopular across party lines.
While much of that unpopularity can likely be explained by Sinema’s stances on issues and legislative activity, her profligate campaign and taxpayer-funded spending habits have been covered closely in the Arizona press and have become part of how voters see her.
There’s no question that the senator has a penchant for leveraging her office to underwrite her lifestyle—charging a $8,470 stay at the Boston Ritz-Carlton to her campaign, for instance, around the 2022 Boston Marathon. An internal office guide to staffing Sinema, which The Daily Beast reported on in December 2022, contains a lengthy section on the senator’s air travel preferences. There were detailed protocols for staffers in the event she did not get a first-class seat.
But Sinema’s use of federal funds for private charter flights reflects a different inclination.
According to the Sinema staff guide, the senator is known to be obsessed with fitting as many work obligations into as small of a timeframe as possible. “Kyrsten is very efficient and HATES wasting time,” the guide reads. For the story, former staffers recalled cramming numerous constituent meetings in Washington, each one just minutes long, into a single time block on Wednesdays.
A big reason why Sinema sought to maximize her productivity was her rigorous athletic training schedule, which prompted her to get up early in the morning for long, grueling workouts, and then block out time for massages and physical therapy sessions during Senate workdays. According to the staff document, aides were also expected to clear weekends and other lengthy periods of time for her races, which were treated as sacrosanct.
The pattern of Sinema’s private charter use could well be a reflection of her fixation on streamlining her work schedule as much as possible. By chartering her own aircraft, the senator was able to visit multiple cities and towns around the state in one or two days, shaving off numerous hours in the car.
In one trip from April 4 to April 5, 2023, for instance, Sinema and five of her staffers flew from Phoenix—where Sinema lives—to Tucson. Then she flew to the towns of Bisbee and Douglas, near the Mexico border, then back to Tucson and Phoenix. On April 5, Sinema visited the border at Douglas with several Republican lawmakers.
Driving that distance would take approximately eight hours; with events and other constituent meetings, the trip is significantly longer. Sinema was able to shorten it considerably, leaving taxpayers to pick up the $13,840 tab.
In other instances, however, Sinema used private jets to condense trips that could conceivably be done in one day in a car. On May 6, 2022, the senator and four of her staffers flew from Phoenix to the towns of Flagstaff and Prescott in northern Arizona, and then back to Phoenix. The drive would take less than six hours in normal traffic; the cost of the flight was $9,400.
The fact that Sinema always filed onto private jets with four or five of her staffers—just for routine trips around the state—also stood out to CREW’s Libowitz. While a senator might have a real entourage at a campaign event, “a member of the Senate going to a small town event, generally, is going to have two people with them,” he said. “It’s not a major to-do.”
Most senators who represent large states do not rely on private air charters to make their travel back home more convenient. Kelly, of course, visits many of the same places in Arizona, presumably in a car or on commercial aircraft.
According to recent Senate records, the most frequent users of chartered aircraft besides Sinema have been representatives of large and very rural states, like South Dakota, where commercial air travel is spotty.
The comparison between Sinema and Kelly, argued Libowitz, is key. “The dichotomy… shows you what the normal thing is, which is, you get in the car and you drive, especially in a state that has a highway system,” he said.
“There’s a question of, did this need to be spent this way?” Libowitz said. “And you’re seeing the answer is probably not.”