The Academic Airfare Reimbursement Scam

I have a complaint that I’ve never seen addressed publicly, but talking to colleagues has made it clear that I’m not the only one affected.

For better or worse, the bulk of my professional life takes place these days in academia. Schools, universities, invite me to lecture, give concerts, and so on.  I’m grateful to them. Most of them ask me to arrange my own plane trip, promising to reimburse me for the airfare. Recently this happened with several schools at once, involving flights to Europe, and I don’t have that kind of cash on hand, so I charged the tickets to my credit card. On average, lately, it’s been taking schools about six months to reimburse me, and sometimes more, by which time the interest on that charge has grown larger than the original ticket price. So for each trip I make as an invited and honored guest, I pay hundreds of dollars in interest on the plane fare to the credit card company, while the university gets to keep making another six months’ interest on the delayed reimbursement. (And I will add that this is only about universities – I’ve done the same thing for professional organizations and non-academic foundations, and their reimbursements arrive lickety-split. Only academia makes a reimbursement crawl through months’ worth of red tape, because no professional person would be so stupid as to put up with it.) I am assured, “Our business people say it’s easier this way.” Well, of course it’s easier – for them! And considerably more lucrative for the university.

I am at the point of turning down offers from schools that ask me to pay for airfare in advance. When did it become all right for universities to obligate professors to loan them money at negative rates of interest? Why does anyone put up with it?



  1. says

    Not to mention that for outside the country trips, you usually get even less once the currency exchange fee is subtracted. Yet even more incentive to make them pay for your airfare up front.
    KG replies: Been there too.

  2. says

    This is happening for job interviews in academia as well, and since many of us who are interviewing aren’t exactly flush with cash it can be really problematic.


  3. says

    It is supply and demand. I am not an academic but the academics I know would work for an honorarium, this means academic institutions have the upper hand. There are plenty of academics who think working for little reward will get them a good reputation and ingratiate themselves into the academic world. Others just accept that is how it is.

    However with your reputation Kyle you don’t have to compete on that level. Therefore I suggest you insist that the institutions employing you book, and pay, your air travel for you. May be you will lose some work but if they think that little of the academics they employ is it worth working for them anyway?

    KG replies: I don’t know about my reputation, but I certainly have enough lines on my resume that getting another one isn’t much incentive by itself. Working for free I can see; but paying to help a university with its finances is over some permanent line.

  4. mclaren says

    If you think this is bad, wait till you see “negative salaries.”

    `It’s being called the “negative salary”: Due to austerity measures in Greece, it’s being reported that up to 64,000 Greeks will go without pay this month, and some will have to pay for having a job. ‘

    Source: “Some Greeks might have to pay for their jobs,” The Atlantic magazine online, February 2012.

    Coming soon to the American economy, courtesy of more austerity measures and that wonderful friend of the working man, globalization…

  5. says

    For those organizations that want to delay payment on the airline flight refunds, it would be even easier, in terms of office work invested, to simply pay up front enough money for you to cover the cost of the flight, meals, and whatever else with their commission, then you deduct the costs from your taxes later. No delayed payment from them would be necessary.

    This, of course, means more work for you. I’m not sure if it would be worth it in the long run.


    KG replies: I’ve occasionally gotten a commission check intended to cover my flight as well (then the cheaper the flight I can find, the more I keep), but I think if I insisted on being paid up front, my number of gigs would fall off dramatically.