John Sununu's personal and political trips on military aircraft have thrown a spotlight on the widespread use of Air Force planes by top federal officials and members of Congress. Sununu, who has made 77 trips on military aircraft since being made the president's chief of staff, has tried to diffuse the issue with rare humor:

Question: What's the difference between John Sununu and the Iraqi Air Force?Answer: Sununu flies more.

Good joke, but it won't fly.

His two trips to a Boston dentist cost $14,000 for the government plane, and Sununu paid back a total of $900. He has reimbursed only $45,000 of nearly a half million dollars in total travel costs.

The Bush administration says that Sununu needs to fly the military aircraft so that Bush can maintain "immediate voice contact" with his chief of staff.

I don't think we want to elevate the position of chief of staff to one equal to elected officials of the government - even if his I.Q. is 180.

Chiefs of staff have historically tended to take power that they should not have anyway. Every so often we ought to check to see that they're not running off with the store.

Even though Sununu is getting most of the publicity, he is not alone. In fact, most Democrats have been hesitant to criticize him - because many of them are flying the same way.

The single most expensive trip that has been documented so far was made by Rep. Dan Rostenskowski, D-Ill., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and chairman of the Joint Committee on Taxation, who traveled with five aides to Poland, Czechoslovakia and Switzerland from June 8-14, 1990, at a reported cost of $99,122.46.

The most expensive group trip was made by William H. Gray, D-Pa., who led an 18-member delegation on a trip to South Africa from March 1-15, 1990, primarily to meet with black South African leader Nelson Mandela. The reported cost was $221,871.88.

Frequent fliers in the House of Representatives include Rep. E. "Kika" De La Garza, D-Tex., Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., Rep. Richard Gephiardt, D-Mo., and Rep. Charles B. Rangel, D-NY.

Frequent fliers in the Senate include Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Ut., Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Sen. William Roth, R-Del., Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Ark., Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Sen. Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz.

Sen. Hatch, ranking member of the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources, member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, took three trips: to Jordan, Israel and Switzerland; to Bolivia, Argentina, Paraguay, Venezuela and Trinidad; and one with an unlisted itinerary at a reported cost of $10,693.00.

The Baltimore Sun recently studied the foreign travel records for members of Congress and found that it costs several million dollars a year - with many trips costing as much as $5,000 each.

Fortunately, the General Accounting Office is making an official inquiry into all such trips made by federal officials - a welcome step, since many have been unwilling to submit to outside scrutiny.

Currently, all a lawmaker or a federal official has to do is get a ride down to Andrews Air Force Base and he will be well taken care of - quickly, with no delays or annoying baggage checks. The cost of the trips can be written off on their tax returns, but taxpayers are directly footing the bill for the military flights.

The most recent example happened just this past week. Vice President Dan Quayle and Sec. of Transportation Samuel Skinner took a military jet to Augusta, Georgia, for the sole purpose of playing golf. The cost to taxpayers was $27,000.

Our public officials should be more down-to-earth.

It is undoubtedly more convenient for them to travel this way - and sometimes they should take military aircraft - but most business trips and all personal trips should be taken on commercial flights - just as ours are.