Via View From the Wing, the Washington Post is trying to characterize Ron Paul as wasting tax payer dollars by flying first class. To be fair, he is probably flying first class, due to elite upgrades, but he isn’t actually buying full fare first class tickets, as Gary points out.
The Congressman, being an employee of the Federal government, would generally travel on what’s known as a government class Y fare. Class Y is typically the booking code for a fully refundable and changeable ticket (these are usually pretty expensive, several multiples higher than the typically lowest available fare, so you would probably never book one of these on your own dime). The government Y fares are slightly different. They’re not as abundant as regular class Y fares, but they are generally discounted from the regular class Y fares. They allow flexibility if a traveler’s plans change due to work.
When it comes to how the airlines treats these fares, they work as regular class Y fares. For example, with a class Y fare, elite bonus miles on a flight actually count as elite qualifying miles rather than just redeemable miles. And if an airline gives preferential upgrades to a class Y fare, the government Y fare would qualify for these as well.
Anyway, back to the article. As Gary points out, Ron Paul isn’t buying some outrageously expensive fare here, just what most government employees and Congressmen and Congresswomen purchase on official travel. The first class would generally come as a no-cost upgrade due to his status with the airline (I assume he travels quite a bit as a Congressman, and has elite status).
Also, as Gary points out, there is a larger issue of whether or not government employees should be buying fully refundable and changeable tickets, or just buying economy tickets and paying change fees. It makes sense, with his particular job and possible schedule changes, to pay a highly discounted rate for the changeable ticket upfront, even if he doesn’t end up needing to change anything most of the time. The government also has contracts in place, and the fares would help with other situations, for example if there was a weather event. While some might say the Congressman should have to go through the same ordeals as regular Americans, his current practices and ticket buying isn’t any different from other members of Congress or the millions of government employees out there.