Monday, June 03, 2013

Michigan taxpayer-owned planes flying more; report revs up use

Officials: Rise in ridership based in better marketing

June 2, 2013 11:13 PM  

Written by  Kristen M. Daum,  Livingston Daily

Forget the hours on end spent in a car or the inconvenience of a commercial flight. More and more state employees are coordinating their business travel a little closer to home — by using the passenger planes owned by the state of Michigan.

Transportation officials say the steady increase in ridership on state-owned planes is a result of better marketing of the Michigan Department of Transportation’s flight services to other state agencies and the introduction in January of a biweekly air shuttle to Marquette.

Those changes came in the wake of an independent report to the Legislature last spring that said MDOT needed to make better use of the state’s passenger planes.

The agency’s actions seem to have made a difference: Between October and March, 1,149 passengers rode the state planes — a 41 percent increase from the 815 people who rode them in the same period the year before, according to figures provided by MDOT.

MDOT officials said Michigan’s unique geography makes the airplanes an asset — by allowing state employees to be more efficient with their time and taxpayer dollars.

“We’re about the 11th-largest state in the country, and we’re surrounded by water unlike any other political entity,” said Rick Carlson, MDOT’s transport and safety manager. “That makes travel awkward by car, because just about every place you go is a 90-degree turn and that adds lots of miles. The airplanes are much more efficient, in a lot of cases.”

MDOT’s Air Transport division — based out of Lansing’s Capital Region International Airport — manages and coordinates the four passenger planes owned by the state.

There are two Beechcraft Barons that seat up to four passengers each and two Beechcraft King Airs, which seat up to nine people each.

Three of the planes are based out of Lansing, while one of the Barons is based in Marquette. MDOT also operates a single-engine Cessna airplane based in Lansing.

The aircraft are available to all state employees and employees of Michigan’s 15 four-year public universities who can justify the cost of traveling in them for work purposes.

Before they can reserve a flight on a state-owned plane, state employees are required to fill out a flight-approval request that forces them to break down the cost of traveling by car or commercial airplane, versus traveling on the state plane. State travel regulations require employees to use the most cost-effective form of travel.

The Barons cost about $395 an hour, while the King Airs cost about $1,231 an hour — regardless of how many passengers are on a flight. Those charges are billed to the departments that use the plane and allow MDOT to recover the cost of parts, fuel and other expenses.

Legislative appropriations to MDOT’s aeronautics services budget — about $8.3 million this fiscal year — help supplement maintenance costs and pay for wages and benefits for the two full-time pilots, two full-time mechanics and other aeronautics staff employed by MDOT.

The 2012 state budget mandated that the state review its fleet of aircraft and assess how well they were being used.

In total, the state owns and operates 14 aircraft — worth altogether about $8.1 million on the retail market, based on 2012 figures.

In addition to the MDOT planes, the Michigan State Police and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources have specialized helicopters and airplanes.

MSP uses helicopters to provide law enforcement assistance across the state, and the DNR uses specialized planes to respond to wildfires and conduct wildlife surveys.

The state retained Holstein Aviation Inc., to complete the required review.

The March 2012 report to the Legislature found the state police and the MDNR were using their aircraft as well as they could be — but MDOT fell short in its operations of the state’s passenger planes.

“The state should look at additional ways to utilize the service that the department provides,” the report stated, while recommending that MDOT look into a regularly scheduled shuttle service to common destinations, such as the Upper Peninsula.

MDOT officials took note, and in late January, the agency began providing an air shuttle to state employees who needed to go to Marquette on business.

The shuttle utilizes the King Airs at $450 for a round-trip ticket.

The flights depart Lansing on Tuesday and Thursday mornings and return from Marquette that same evenings — eliminating the need for overnight stays and 800 miles of driving.

A generic cost comparison by MDOT found driving to Marquette costs more than double what it would cost to use the air shuttle.

Factoring in wages, meals, hotel stays, mileage and the airplane ticket, departments pay about $607.25 for an average employee to fly on the air shuttle for a one-day business trip.

Agencies would spend nearly $1,400 for the same trip if the employee drove to Marquette and back, which would require an extra two workdays just for driving.


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