They say Energy Sec. Bill Richardson never met an airplane he didn`t like.
Richardson boasted to independent oil men in May, "I`ve traveled more than any other (energy) secretary." No one is contesting his claim.
He has averaged at least a couple of trips per week since becoming secretary 10 months ago. (No, he does not get to keep his frequent flier miles.)
For instance, between Jan. 5 and June 24 of this year, he flew to 45 destinations. Over the span of a week last winter, he made separate jaunts to Switzerland, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia.
Latin America is a specialty for the Spanish-speaking Richardson. He has been to Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Later this year he plans to get his passport stamped in Chile, Bolivia, Argentina, and Brazil.
But the bulk of his travel has been domestic, not only to major cities but also to out-of-the way places like Schenectady, N.Y., Aiken, S.C., Walnut Creek, Calif., Bismark, N.D., Batavia, Ill., and Cromwell, Conn.
In an interview, Richardson explained that frequent travel is an essential element of his job.
(His presence isn`t necessarily required in Washington, D.C., because the deputy secretary traditionally manages the day-to-day affairs of the energy department.)
Some of Richardson`s trips resulted from his goal to visit each of the 40 energy department facilities across the nation. So far, he`s toured all but two locations. At several installations, he was the first energy secretary ever to visit.
He also has traveled to Oklahoma and Alaska for the express purpose of meeting oil executives. And he has delivered speeches at several out-of-town oil industry meetings.
Richardson explained, "It`s very important that the energy secretary be on top of what`s going on in the industry, and you can`t do that in Washington. You have to get to the oil and gas states and meet with producers and be on their turf and listen to them."
If Richardson is a trifle defensive about his travels, it`s for good reason.
He well remembers that, in 1996, Congress held hearings to investigate former Sec. Hazel O`Leary`s extensive and expensive overseas trips.
Nothing much came of it, except that the Clinton administration was rather embarrassed, and O`Leary`s days as secretary immediately became numbered.
Richardson`s travel isn`t close to becoming controversial. It`s generally perceived that he`s doing a good job, and his trips always have a reasonable purpose such as a speech, a dedication, an announcement, a plant tour, or a meeting.
Also, Richardson flies commercially, keeps a tight and busy schedule, and takes along only a few assistants.
Those aides are rotated, one of them said, because Richardson`s travel schedule is so "hectic and punishing" that no one wants to travel with him all the time.
For the rest of his 19 months in office, you can expect Richardson to continue his wandering ways.
So if you haven`t seen him in person yet, just hang out at your local airport.