Saturday, January 14, 2017

Editorial: Hold off on new state helicopter

The other day, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo was traveling as part of his State of the State tour, fumes filled the cockpit of the state helicopter he was flying in.

As a result, the rotorcraft was forced to make an emergency landing at Stewart airport. Thankfully, neither the governor nor any of those on board was injured.

Such incidents involving state helicopters are becoming increasingly and alarmingly common. And it's clear something needs to be done. None of us wishes the governor anyone any harm, especially due to our unwillingness to provide them with safe transportation.

But rather than use the latest incident as an excuse to avoid state bidding procedures in purchasing a new $12.5 million helicopter to transport the governor from place to place, the state should take immediate steps to ensure the safety of its entire fleet of 14 helicopters and begin the process of systematically replacing aging aircraft that no longer worthy to fly.

In November, Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli rejected a proposed purchase of a used helicopter that would be larger and faster than the current crop of aircraft, allowing it to travel further without refueling.

The comptroller said not enough information had been provided about how it could be converted to use in search-and-rescue missions and about what maintenance would be required for an aircraft that had already logged 335 hours in the air.

But in the wake of the latest incident, the comptroller gave state police permission to buy the helicopter without going out to bid. Certainly, $12.5 million isn't much in the state's $155 billion budget. We don't want to be penny-wise and pound foolish with the safety of the governor and other passengers. But $12.5 million for one vehicle is nothing to sneeze at either.

Is there an alternative to buying this helicopter that hasn't been explored? First off, we don't know what caused the current helicopter's latest issue. Was it caused by an old aircraft, some kind of parts malfunction, or by inadequate maintenance? With 13 other helicopters in the fleet, it might be wise to first review maintenance procedures to be sure the helicopters are being adequately cared for and prepared for flight.

Second, can't the governor use another helicopter in the fleet while he's waiting for the bidding process on a new helicopter? Are all 13 other helicopters in dangerous condition or inadequate for his use or in need of repair? Can't he take a car on his travels, or rent a helicopter in the meantime?

And of course, going through the bidding process for a new helicopter might result in a less expensive option or a deal to replace more of the fleet at less cost. You don't know until you solicit bids.

It's easy to use an emergency incident to make a rash decision on a new purchase.

But before the state goes off and buys this helicopter without bidding for it, it should consider whether other actions need to be taken that could protect the safety of the governor and the financial interests of taxpayers.


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