Passenger count increases 41 percent after report encourages the use of state planes
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 that’s 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 also pay for wages and benefits for the two full-time pilots, two full-time mechanics and other aeronautics staff employed by MDOT.
Review increases usage
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 currently 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 travel to Marquette on business.
The shuttle utilizes the King Airs at a set rate per passenger: $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.
By comparison, 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.
Carlson said the use of the shuttle has been “mixed” so far, but he acknowledged the program is still in its test phase.
The shuttle doesn’t operate in poor weather conditions or when there are no passengers. So far, the shuttle service has been canceled once because of weather and seven times for lack of passengers, Carlson said.
MDOT will evaluate the success of the shuttle near the end of June “to determine if any changes can be made that would be more accommodating to users’ schedules,” Carlson said.
That could include decreasing the shuttle’s frequency to maximize passenger loads, he said.
Highest use at MDOT
An analysis by the State Journal of MDOT’s aircraft use data showed the state’s passenger planes are used by far most often by MDOT
More than 1,000 trips involved transportation workers over the five-year period reviewed by the State Journal. Many times, a single trip involved passengers from more than one state agency.
State police and MDNR employees also used the planes quite often, about 170 to 180 times across the five years. Those departments have offices across the state, which requires their employees to be more mobile than other departments.
Randy Van Portfliet has ridden the state planes far more than anyone else in the past five years, based on the State Journal’s analysis, and to no surprise: He’s a senior official within MDOT.
Van Portfliet is the Upper Peninsula region director for MDOT and also the department’s field services director — a job that requires him to supervise hundreds of employees, serve on numerous commissions and policy-setting boards and coordinate statewide transportation programs.
The State Journal found that Van Portfliet has been a passenger on the state planes at least 177 times in the past five years, which averages out to about three trips a month.
“It’s a convenience,” Van Portfliet said recently by telephone from his Escanaba office. “I would not be able to do my job with the DOT without the plane; I just wouldn’t be able to do it at the level I perform at now.”
When Van Portfliet assumed his current job within MDOT back in 1997, he said he used to fly commercial planes from Escanaba to Lansing, which required him to make stops in Milwaukee and sometimes Detroit, too.
He said it took about as much time to fly as it would have taken to drive to Lansing, about 6½ hours.
By comparison, the state plane can get him to Lansing within an hour and 20 minutes, he said.
Comparing the costs with commercial flights or the time it would take to drive, “it’s always cheaper for me to fly,” he said.
“If I was on the road for 6½ hours, that’s just dead time.”
The planes are a tight squeeze, “just the seat and the pilot,” as Van Portfliet described it.
The ride itself isn’t always smooth either.
The larger King Airs can fly at altitudes higher than 20,000 feet, but the Barons fly at about 9,000 feet, depending on weather conditions.
That shorter altitude puts the Baron planes smack-dab into turbulent air, especially on cloudy days, Van Portfliet said.
“It’s like a bumpy gravel road,” he said.
“People that are on the plane, it’s all exciting the first time. The second time, it’s like, ‘Wow, how do you do this?’ ”
Van Portfliet said he’s rarely alone on the plane, since employees for other departments often ride on the same trips for work-related business of their own.
“For the state of Michigan, it’s a huge value,” Van Portfliet said. “It’s a very cost effective way of doing business.”