Monday, April 7, 2014

Michigan resumes leasing planes despite Federal Aviation Administration probe

The Michigan Department of Transportation has resumed leasing planes to state universities despite the fact that federal authorities have not yet completed an investigation of the practice.

The renewal of the lease program in December contradicts statements last summer by agency officials that MDOT would suspend the program pending the conclusion of the review by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The FAA launched its investigation last summer. The agency hasn’t disclosed the exact target of its review, but state officials have said they believe the FAA is suggesting that MSU athletics could be outside the scope of state government, which would make those flights “commercial” in nature. That would require MDOT to obtain new certification to lease the planes to MSU.

Jeff Cranson, spokesman for the department, said the agency had a change of heart after agency officials, and the state Attorney General’s Office, reviewed the MDOT policy and concluded it was in compliance with FAA regulations.

“They determined that the (MDOT) aircraft are operated as civil aircraft under the Federal Aviation Regulations,” said Cranson, referring to MDOT and AG officials. “Because state colleges and universities are legally defined as state government entities, there is no basis to restrict their use as customers of the service.”

Officials of the Attorney General’s Office declined to comment on their review of the MDOT policy.

It remains unclear whether MSU is among state universities that have begun leasing planes again from MDOT.

Universities officials said Friday any inquiries would have to be made through the Michigan Freedom of Information Act.

The FAA began its review of the leasing program after the State Journal published a story in June about how state planes are used, and who uses them. After viewing five years’ worth of trip logs, the paper reported MSU men’s head basketball coach Tom Izzo and MSU head football coach Mark Dantonio were among the most frequent fliers.

MDOT makes its four passenger planes 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.

Any university, or state department for that matter, that uses the planes, including MSU, reimburses MDOT for the expense.

But state-owned aircraft cannot, under federal law, be used as transportation for hire outside government. Aircraft used for commercial purposes must have certification.

The MSU athletics department pays MDOT a per-hour fee to use the planes, and the state planes are one of several charter options that the athletics department uses.

In all, MSU employees and guests used the state planes at least 150 times during the five-year period.

Elizabeth Isham Cory, spokeswoman for the FAA, said the review of MDOT’s plane use is ongoing, and she could not speculate on when it might conclude.

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