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W.Va. studies state government aircraft fleet; Flights decline under Tomblin

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's administration is conducting a comprehensive review of the state's aircraft fleet, following a significant decline in state plane use since Tomblin took office.

The use of the state's largest airplane, a King Air 350, has dropped by a third -- from a high of 302 flights in 2006 to 197 last year. Flights on the state's other plane, a 2009 Cessna Grand Caravan, are down by half, from 199 to 95 flights, during the same period.

The governor's office primarily uses the state aircraft, followed by the departments of transportation, commerce and environmental protection.

"We're doing a significant amount of research assessing the use of aircraft, as well as our helicopters, attempting to determine what is best for the state," said Administration Secretary Ross Taylor, who is leading the review.

Since Tomblin became acting governor in November 2010, the twin-engine King Air has flown about 175 times a year, while the Cessna Caravan has averaged about 100 flights annually. Former Gov. Joe Manchin's administration, which preceded Tomblin's, used the King Air plane 207 times per year on average, while the Cessna, a single-engine turboprop plane, averaged 162 flights.

Flight hours also are down. The King Air flew 210 hours in 2008, compared to 155 during the past fiscal year. The Cessna logged 79 flight hours in 2008, and 72 last year.

Taylor said he was unsure why flights have declined since Tomblin took office. The governor has not directed his office or state agencies to curtail use of state planes.

However, the governor's office has asked that cabinet secretaries analyze all flight requests submitted by state agency employees to determine whether a commercial flight would be cheaper, Taylor said.

The number of flights started to decline in 2008, two years before Manchin left the governor's office and became a U.S. senator.

"There doesn't appear to be a particular reason for the decline in usage of state aircraft," Taylor said.

Aviation division operational costs have dropped by $21,000 per year over the last four years. The state also has saved about $34,200 a year in fuel costs because of the drop in flights. The decline has led to a total savings of about $221,000.

During the past five years, two pilots have left the state aviation office, and they haven't been replaced.

"These positions were not filled as it was determined the remaining staff was sufficient to meet the needs of the agency," Taylor said.

In 2009, the state traded in a 2005 model Cessna Grand Caravan for a new model. The 2009 Cessna had a $2.1 million purchase price, but the state paid $287,000 for the new aircraft because the seller agreed to credit $1.7 million of that cost as a trade-in for the 2005 plane.

The aviation office charges state agencies $700 an hour for flights on Cessna, half the hourly rate for King Air flights.

The state Aviation Division also has three helicopters.

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.


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