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Should Governors Have Airplanes?

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Last week's news stories on business jets used by governors raised the ever-sordid notion that anyone who sets foot in a Citation is a fat cat. And if the airplane is state supported, the cat is fat on the backs of taxpayers. In the current season of overspending government, it's fruitless to try to explain that airplanes are sometimes productivity tools which can pay back far greater than the money invested in them. On the other hand and risking apostasy here, they can also be a colossal waste of time and taxpayer or shareholder money. It depends entirely on how and what they're used for. And much of this is about image, not substance.

Last week's stories would have caused anyone who has used an airplane for business to pause and think about what rules are applied for business trips involving a private aircraft. It certainly did for me. Up until about six years ago, I used our Mooney—make that plural, we had two—for periodic business travel related to magazine editorial work. I'll get to why I no longer use it in a moment.

Between testing aviation products and trips to see vendors and manufacturers, I'd guess I made a couple of dozen or more trips a year. Because I hardly have an unlimited budget, I applied a stringent acid test to using the airplane. No single-destination trips over a couple of hours and no long trips where I could do better on the airlines. In other words, if I used the airplane, I usually had at least two or three stops into places where I couldn't get by airline travel.

Here are some numbers: We billed our airplanes at about $130 wet, which was probably a little below the real cost. When we were based in Connecticut, I could non-stop it to destinations in the Midwest and deep South, stopping along the way to do additional business. For example, I could do a round trip to Oshkosh for about $1200. With a couple of people aboard, that was justifiable. But not if I was going alone, where $1200 is a no-brainer against a $300 airline ticket. With additional stops—sometimes two or three—the equation swung back in favor of the Mooney.

When we moved to Florida, the numbers stopped working for two reasons. Florida is at the ends of the earth for routine travel into the rest of the U.S. and, because of the tourist trade, the airline fares here are highly competitive. From Florida, trips into the Northeast and Midwest in the Mooney were totaling closer to $2000, against $250 for an airline fare. For light aircraft flying at 150 knots, the time-saving argument is an illusion. The Northeast trip in the Mooney, in addition to costing eight times more, was slower than an airline trip. Each way would consume most of a day. To work around that, I took to flying the trips at night. But on one trip, bucking 40 knot headwinds, ice and rain, I found myself pushing the airplane back into the hangar at 2 a.m. Thanks, but no thanks. After a persistent pattern of that sort of thing, we sold the Mooney.

Do I miss it? Yeah, I miss it. Last spring, I had to go to Mobile to visit Continental. The airline fare was $1000 and required an overnight. I could have flown it for half that in the Mooney and done the trip in a long day. But on balance, I don't have many trips like that. I'm as all about slipping the surly bonds as the next guy, but I run a business and the dollars matter. A lot.

So that gets back to our two governors, Mississippi's Haley Barbour and Florida's new governor, Rick Scott. Barbour got crosswise with the legislature who claims he was abusing the privilege of access to the state's Citation. It's impossible to judge this at a distance without reviewing the trip logs. It smells of a political witch hunt. In Scott's case, he wants to sell the state's King Air and Citation as a high-profile cost-cutting move. Again, it's probably more political than practical. He's a wealthy businessman and can afford his own jet transportation.

So, coming full circle, can states like Mississippi and Florida justify owning or leasing their own business aircraft? I'm not about to automatically say yes just because I think anything to do with airplanes is just grand or to support the aviation industry. As in the foregoing discussion, I would expect governors to make the business case for the airplane. If a governor makes even a couple of trips out of state to lure companies into the state through face-to-face meetings, the airplane will pay for itself many times over. On the other hand, planned ahead travel for political (or personal) reasons will be a juicy target that will do more harm than good.

Florida is a big state, with distances far too great to cover by car or even helicopter. For in-state travel, the state's King Air 350 seems like a perfectly sensible solution, even without looking close. It's fairly inexpensive to operate and can get from one corner of the state to the next in a little over an hour. Actually, selling it off in the current down market is probably none too smart. But the people Scott is trying to impress with his cost cutting probably won't notice.

Comments (26)

Yeah, I guess it's far better for politicians to use a lobbyist's Citation for "free" than to have taxpayers pay for a gubernatorial jet. After all, lobbyists don't really expect anything in return...

Posted by: Jerry Plante | January 10, 2011 3:20 PM    Report this comment

I hate it when you apply logic to airplane ownership. If I wanted to hear that, I'd call my CPA.

Posted by: John Ewald | January 10, 2011 3:47 PM    Report this comment

Tiny States, no. Big States (AK, TX, CA) sure.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | January 10, 2011 5:59 PM    Report this comment

I'd say all states have use for aircraft, but not necessarily jets. Just like in any business, it depends on the mission. I'd think the Kingair is appropriate for FL, but a Pilatus, or even a 421 or Navajo would be quite adequate as well - at a fraction of the operating costs.

Posted by: Josh Johnson | January 11, 2011 6:25 AM    Report this comment

An`aircraft dedicated to Governor travel is likely a stretch for any state. But another option is to use state law enforcement aircraft for travel - which may or may not be an option as states are trimming their tactical air forces. Here in CT, I remember witnessing a prior Governor hopping aboard a brand new state police Bell 407 for a 8 nautical mile trip to the international airport to catch an airline flight, rather than having his driver drop him off in the Suburban. Those were the fat days. Today, the state has no budget to fly it unless it's life or death - and even that's a stretch.

Posted by: Larry Anglisano | January 11, 2011 1:21 PM    Report this comment

For perspective, our president just flew a pair of 747's from DC to Hawaii just for a family vacation. So why is it an issue that a governor spends $160K/yr on a Citation?

Posted by: Mark Fraser | January 11, 2011 2:39 PM    Report this comment

Why not give them all C206's? The plane could be piloted by the State Police agencies, and when not transporting the governor could be used for SAR, traffic monitoring, exciting police chases, et cetera. That model is relatively inexpensive, super practical, has a low cost of operation, and doesn't have the same "super rich powerful man coming through" visual appeal. Really, image is everything here. Solid multi-mission functionality is a huge plus.

Posted by: Jonathan Harger | January 11, 2011 4:35 PM    Report this comment

I agree with Paul that whether it's appropriate really depends on why it's being used, and how much. Clearly some in the .gov (e.g. Nancy Pelosi, maybe Haley Barbor) have abused their privledge and should take heat for it. Others though have used them appropriately, or gotten rid of them (e.g. Palin as governor of AK).

Perhaps they should consider fractional ownership rather than outright if it's boarderline. Or smaller/slower/less expensive alternatives like the King Air/Pilatus/high end reciprocating as others have suggested.

Posted by: Andrew Upson | January 11, 2011 7:09 PM    Report this comment

I rushed here to add a comment supporting GA, however the above comments are so thoughtful that nothing really needs to be added. Good work folks!

Posted by: Stuart Baxter | January 13, 2011 8:06 AM    Report this comment

Rather than flying around Florida or Mississippi in a King Air or a Citation or a Pilatus, maybe the Governor of Florida should be fling in a Piper and the Governor of Mississippi should be flying something powered by a Continental, to support products actually made in their state. Let the Governor of Kansas fly in a Citation, Connecticut can use a Pratt and Whitney powered jet, etc.

Posted by: peter vans | January 13, 2011 8:49 AM    Report this comment

Focus on the real issue. Some years ago a gubernatorial candidate in my state campaigned on the slogan, "sell the jet". He won, the state sold the jet at a serious loss, and paid the new governor to use HIS airplane. So, the campaign slogan was not really to save the state money. It was to use tax money to subsidize the governor's own plane. I suspect the same in Florida. Florida should refuse to subsidize the governor's plane. If he wants to fly it should be in State airplanes. Let HIM "sell the jet". If he wants seriously diminished time efficiency for state officials he and other state officials should drive or use airlines. They shouldn't subsidize the governor's own plane.

Posted by: Don Smith | January 13, 2011 8:52 AM    Report this comment

Governor of Mississippi should be flying something powered by a Continental, to support products actually made in their state.<<

Mobile, where Continental is, is actually in Alabama, not Mississippi. But your point is well taken.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 13, 2011 9:04 AM    Report this comment

As a Florida resident, I have no real heartburn with the Governor keeping/using a State owned airplane vs. driving or flying commercially. Security has to a part of the "equation" which no one has brought up (especially given the events of Tucson). That said, I have heartburn with he use of jets ... Florida isn't THAT big and his presence is usually political anyways. In the hangar right next to mine is a near new FL State Div of Forestry C182. I see no reason why he couldn't use this airplane (and there are many more like it in FL) or a piston twin v. a jet. The REAL issue (Nationwide) is not one of airplane usage but one of the perception of misuse or excessive extravagance. If a Governor arrives with an entourage in a Citation just to give a speech, it gives the impression of misuse and living lavishly. If he were to arrive in the above C182 with his aide and a security person, it does not. I agree with Peter Vans ... the Governor of Florida ought to be flying an airplane made in FLorida ... so that means Piper. AND ... it ought to be painted on the side of the airplane so everyone realizes this point. Civilians don't know where Pipers are produced.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | January 13, 2011 9:09 AM    Report this comment

I agree with the comments about efficiency, but that just isn't the way these things are usually used in state government. When a high muckety has the state Citation fly an hour to move him 30 miles for a meeting, then lets it sit on the ramp all day until he's ready to go home; when a former university president complains publicly that he's "embarrassed to arrive in a little propeller plane" (a King Air) instead of a jet, its about status. Its their way of reminding the peons of their status. And its a very easy political target.

Posted by: Merl Raisbeck | January 13, 2011 9:33 AM    Report this comment

Paul - you should query Gov Scott about the specific amount he plans on billing the State for the use of his airplane and compare that to what the previous gov spent on State owned airplane travel costs. Owning the airplane is one thing, but we all know how much it costs to run these airplanes and I bet that Gov Scott is not going to "donate" the use of his airplane to the State with no compensation.

Posted by: Jeff Owen | January 13, 2011 9:44 AM    Report this comment

Scoot specifically said he would use his own airplane at his own expense. Given the man's past, we have good reason to doubt this claim. We will see what develops.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 13, 2011 9:50 AM    Report this comment

The “Real Issue” is to how to transport CEO's of large companies and highly placed public officials, unless we want them to remain barricaded in their offices and mansions. The question is how do they travel while giving due considerations to all the privacy, security and safety concerns, that exist for both themselves and the public.

44 years as a aviator/manager makes me doubt that any responsible official would (or should) ever recommend that a governor of any state, or high officials of a large publically held company, fly regularly in a single engine recip, turboprop or jet; nor in a turboprop or jet that uses a single pilot.

Jets and turboprops are generally better equipped, with more safety devices. When flown by experienced, trained, professional crews, when using established safety protocols, the safety record is excellent.

We have to ask, what does it cost if that C-182 blows a rod and ends up in a body of water or in the Everglades in a non-survivable accident?

Posted by: THOMAS OLSEN | January 13, 2011 10:04 AM    Report this comment

Yes, if "THEY" can afford them. If you ask the ? should tax payers foot the bill for Governors to have airplanes, then maybe. If they are closing schools and crying about affording fire fighters, police and other public safety issues, I would say NO to aircraft. All any government needs to do on these issues is use a little common sense.

Posted by: Donna Svoboda | January 13, 2011 11:10 AM    Report this comment

If I have to fly something made in the state I would like to be governor of Washington and ride around in a 737.

Posted by: Stuart Galt | January 13, 2011 11:43 AM    Report this comment

I think you have it backwards. Airliners should have governors that limit their speed to 55 mph. 55 saves lives - just ask anyone in government or in auto insurance :<) Yes, I'm well aware airliners can't fly at that speed. Once the airlines are all bankrupt, we shouldn't need TSA anymore, and the skies should, in theory, be safer for general aviation.

Otherwise, I agree with Larry and Jonathan. If the gov already owns something faster, let the gov fly it, but reimburse the gov at the same rate per mile as a complex single piston.

Posted by: Bruce Liddel | January 13, 2011 6:10 PM    Report this comment

This isn't the first time a sitting Florida Governor has gone after the airplane issue. Governor Scott has a very nice Bizjet and if I was him, the Citation is a step back. That said, it is the media hype and three Governors ago the State sold a newly refurbed Saber for a King Air (jet v prop image). Really didn't make financial sense in it takes longer, thus same fuel in the newly acquired "Prop". I am sure they lost money of the sale. Bush decided the Govonor needed a Jet and acquired the Citation and he was very fiscally responsible. As the attacks on the evil Bizjet fade with the housing market, some in Congress are still jetting around on charter Boeings while pointing fingers...I contend the public as a whole understands the needs for Private transport and doesn't care, blame the press.

Posted by: Chuck West | January 14, 2011 3:43 PM    Report this comment

I think we're missing the point here (although Paul zeros in on it) -- Governors and other elected officials often have many commitments in any one day. I recently witnessed a state official coming to my large regional city by King Air B200, even though there's an excellent freeway and fast rail connection. Why? I asked the official, and his aide, and they cited 3 key reasons: privacy in transit (extensive briefings/meetings with up to 6 other passengers each way), non-linear routes to the next stop via surface transport, and inner-city traffic snarls around the state legislature that would have added 4 or more hours to everyone's working day.

All were acutely aware of the social & political consequenses of using the B200, but both sides of the political spectrum would agree that officials must be seen by the voters as "being there" and also working hard in the legislature; two totally incompatible but nevertheless truisms of a democracy.

My point -- Anyone with 15 hours work to do in a day needs all the tools at their disposal to get through it. Otherwise, we'll all rightfully deride them as slackers...

Posted by: Larry Burrows | January 14, 2011 7:17 PM    Report this comment

When it comes to comfort and convenience there is no comparison between air travel in private aircraft and commercial carriers. It's not a financial or time use argument. Executives like private aircraft because they hate the hassles of security, delays, traffic, retched service, going hungry, tarmac delays, etc. Can anyone blame them?

Posted by: Dana Nickerson | January 14, 2011 10:02 PM    Report this comment

This is a witch hunt. I think there is a definite case for running aircraft irrespective of the size of the state. Some abuse it but so what? If you think most do then its time for a revolution.

When my hands-free kit died in the car recently I realised just how much I got done by phone when driving. My time is worth a lot to me but pales compared to that of these people. Being able to chat freely and work in an office-like environment while getting somewhere makes sense to me.

I bet more could be done to share many flights and put the aircraft to use for constituents at other times - they own them so maybe some should get a ride? With a bit of common sense and smartening up, this issue will disappear.

Posted by: john hogan | January 17, 2011 9:51 AM    Report this comment

"Clearly some in the .gov (e.g. Nancy Pelosi, maybe Haley Barbor) have abused their privilege..."

I've heard this argument about Nancy Pelosi a number of times but it's bogus. As Speaker of the House and 3rd in line to the Presidency the Secret Service would not allow her to fly commercial even though she stated that she would prefer to fly commercial and since she is no longer Speaker presumable she does now.

Posted by: David Werth | January 21, 2011 11:17 PM    Report this comment

Given the nearly successful assassination of a congressperson in Tucson, I prefer that prominent persons not fly by commercial airline. I have argued this point in the past in Avweb forums, that if a prominent individual like Nancy Pelosi does fly commercial, the security precautions that must be taken to protect his or her privacy and safety will inconvenience other passengers. That's as good a reason as any, really, for VIP's and celebs not to fly on the same aircraft as the general public.

Also, for corporate VIP's, I don't buy the argument that their pay should be limited to no more than x times what the lowest-ranking worker earns. That's up to the board of directors of Ford, or any other corporation, to decide. And if the board of directors of Ford or some other corporation, or if the legislature of a given state want the CEO or governor to fly in a company (or, state) owned, leased or chartered bizjet to save time or for security/privacy reasons, so be it.

Posted by: Alex Kovnat | January 26, 2011 4:58 AM    Report this comment

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