Costs of underused state planes questioned

Since Kasich began presidential run, state’s new planes have been mostly idle.

In March 2015, the Ohio Department of Transportation traded its two King Air passenger turboprop planes, manufactured in 1973 and 1982, and purchased a seven-passenger 2013 Beechcraft King Air 250 and a nine-passenger 2015 Beechcraft King Air 350i.

“These planes were not bought for the governor. There are a variety of people who can and do use the aircraft,” said Matt Bruning, press secretary for the Ohio Department of Transportation, which operates the fleet. “(The governor) gets first dibs. He is the chief executive of the state.”

But lately, Kasich hasn’t been taking dibs.

Since his presidential announcement, Kasich has been on the state planes just three times, including a trip to Marietta last month to deliver his State of the State address. On the presidential campaign trail, Kasich has traveled on private aircraft, including recent trips to Oregon, California, Maryland, New York, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania.

Kasich announced Wednesday that he is suspending his campaign for president.

Over the decades, ODOT’s aviation division has employed aircraft mechanics and pilots to maintain and fly a fleet of airplanes and helicopters used to ferry passengers, map terrain for public projects and spot outdoor marijuana grows. ODOT owns four planes and a helicopter. The Ohio Highway Patrol and Department of Natural Resources also own airplanes and helicopters.

ODOT bills the state agencies for the aircraft time: $440 per flight hour for the two King Airs and $450 per flight hour for its helicopter.

Flight logs show the new aircraft have shuttled passengers just 13 times since ODOT put them into service in May 2015. Between May 2015 and April 2016, the planes made five trips for Kasich, three for Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor, three for ODOT Director Jerry Wray and two for lawmakers.

By comparison, between May 2014 and April 2015, the old aircraft made 23 trips — 19 for Kasich, two for Taylor, one for Ohio Senate President Keith Faber, R-Celina, and one for Kasich’s chief of staff Beth Hansen and John Minor of JobsOhio.

In addition to the cost of purchasing the aircraft is staffing. Pay in 2015 for ODOT aviation administrators, managers, mechanics, technicians, pilots and others totaled $920,695.

ODOT has a policy that passenger flights shall be staffed with two pilots. But the agency only has three pilots on staff now, meaning even if there were a simultaneous demand for both planes, only one could be flown. ODOT is currently advertising to hire an aircraft maintenance technician and a pilot.

When the planes aren’t flying, the pilots occupy their 40-hour work week by attending to other duties, according to Bruning, such as conducting airport inspections or checking building plans for projects at nearby airports.

Matt Mayer of the conservative think tank Opportunity Ohio questioned the costs in maintaining a state fleet of aircraft.

“I’d be curious to see the cost-benefit analysis they used to make the decision to ditch the old ones for new ones, as new ones are fairly expensive,” he said. “Nevertheless, I continue to question to need for the state to own airplanes. Having driven 23,000-plus miles around Ohio to give speeches, it just isn’t a state that is hard to drive.”

Bruning countered that the aircraft save valuable time for officeholders and top managers. “It’s an effective way to get around the state, that’s for sure.”

Bruning said the old passenger planes were costly to maintain. In February 2013, as soon as the old King Air landed in Youngstown, the pilot asked Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine and another passenger if they smelled anything. DeWine said yes. Indeed, a device on the engine intake that prevents ice build-up had overheated and needed to be replaced. That plane stayed in Youngstown for repairs for three days while a second ODOT plane was summoned to retrieve DeWine.

“It’s not that these were unsafe. It’s that they were becoming unreliable and expensive to maintain,” Bruning said.

In 2012, Ohio Auditor Dave Yost issued a 65-page audit examining executive travel use of the ODOT planes. The report raised questions about whether the state needs such a large fleet given how little some of the planes are used and the expenses involved in maintaining them. Yost made recommendations including tracking all the executive air travel expenses in one spot, developing standards for what qualifies as a legitimate flight for state business and selling off underused aircraft.

Mayer, who suggested the state should have considered leasing aircraft, said it still looks like the state is under-using the passenger planes.

“If the state needs a plane, it should be used far more often to justify its costs,” he said. “And, as both planes were never used on the same day, perhaps the state could have survived with one plane.”

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