Lawmakers approved millions to replace decades-old state planes with ‘Penthouse on the 5,000th Floor’
Like almost every other state, Nevada owns and operates private aircraft, used primarily to ferry Nevada Department of Transportation employees between Las Vegas and Carson City.
But unlike some states that have distanced themselves from publicly owned planes as a show of fiscal restraint, Nevada is moving forward with plans to buy two new private aircraft and bump up pay for four state pilots. The transportation department (NDOT) quietly won approval from lawmakers to spend nearly $14 million on planes, which represent a significant upgrade of the state’s current fleet: a nine-seat jet and five-seat turboprop aircraft constructed during the Reagan administration.
“As part of the department’s responsibility for the planning, construction, operation and maintenance of the state’s 5,400 miles of highway and 1,200 bridges, the planes are used to transport state transportation workers, engineers, administrators and others in a more efficient and cost-effective manner than commercial flight or vehicle travel,” NDOT spokeswoman Meg Ragonese said in an email.
In presentations to lawmakers during the legislative session and at a recent Interim Finance Committee meeting, NDOT officials testified that use of the planes saves the department significant sums compared to commercial air travel, and that the purchase of new planes would significantly cut down on maintenance costs and eventually pay for themselves within six to seven years.
Lawmakers in both parties approved the spending request with no opposition, citing the cost savings and the fact that the funds come out of the Highway Fund — funded primarily by gasoline taxes — and not the state’s primary budget account.
In response to a detailed list of questions from The Nevada Independent about the department’s flight operations, NDOT also announced it would change its policy of allowing other state employees to use state planes as needed without having to reimburse for the cost of the flight — a privilege that several elected officials, including Democratic Attorney General Aaron Ford and Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, have taken advantage of this year.
Here’s a look at what new planes the state is set to buy, and how state-run air travel operates:
Both planes currently operated by NDOT were manufactured in the 1980s; a nine-seat Cessna Citation II 550 that is 31 years old and a five-seat Aero Commander 840 built 37 years ago. The Commander is also used to conduct aerial mapping of the state’s transportation infrastructure.
But in NDOT’s 2019 budget request, the agency sought approval of $13.9 million in funds to purchase two new planes; a 10-seat Pilatus PC-24 (described by the manufacturer as “Like a Penthouse on the 5,000th Floor”) to replace the Citation, and an 11-seat Beechcraft King Air 350 to replace the Aero Commander.
In addition to the increased capacity, the department told lawmakers that the new planes would “achieve fuel cost savings, reduce noise pollution, streamline flight times, increase seat capacity, as well as improve recruitment and retention of pilots.” Most notably, the department estimated it would save an estimated $2.3 million over the next two years on maintenance costs with the new planes, and receive several years of warranty service; a significant upgrade given the age of the current fleet.
“With both existing airplanes out of production for many years now, some parts and/or components are no longer available new while others are only available used or rebuilt,” the agency wrote.
But the new aircraft come at a cost; in addition to the legislatively-approved $13.9 million, NDOT received additional approval last month from members of the Interim Finance Committee to spend an additional $1.69 million because of the rising cost of the planes since lawmakers approved spending the initial sum of money during the legislative session.
“Buyers are placing orders for delivery 2-3 years from now, at full price,” Chief Pilot Scott Hofmeyer wrote in a letter to lawmakers. “So, it is important to secure a production spot as soon as possible if a buyer wants an airplane that is highly desirable. There are many very good airplanes being produced today that are years away from being delivered.”
It’s not clear whether the decision on which planes to purchase was exempted from the state’s normal bidding and state purchasing requirements; NDOT’s chief pilot did an analysis of options based on cost and various functions and abilities of available planes, and the department said in a statement that the “aircraft can only be purchased through the manufacturer, (so) department staff are handling the purchasing process.”
The new planes weren't the only aviation-related budget increase approved by lawmakers; NDOT also requested and received pay bumps for the state’s chief pilot (from $104,540 a year to $117,453) and for three other NDOT-employed pilots, in part as a way to make the department a “more competitive employer” and help with hiring and retaining pilots “who do not prefer to fly old airplanes at below-market salaries,” according to the department’s budget request. The median salary for a commercial pilot is just over $130,000 a year.
Funding for the new planes and raises isn’t coming out of the state’s general fund, the account that funds almost all government operations from health care to education. Instead, the cost of flying and fueling the planes comes out of the Highway Fund, which is made up of gasoline taxes, DMV fees and federal transportation funds (fund revenue in 2017 eclipsed $1.2 billion).
State plane travel
The individual who traveled most on state-owned planes throughout 2019 is NDOT director Kristina Swallow, appointed to her position in January 2019.
According to eight months of flight logs obtained by The Nevada Independent through a public records request, Swallow took 12 flights on the state-owned five-seat Aero Commander 840 between January and August of 2019, the most of any state official over that time period (previous NDOT director Rudy Malfabon took one flight in January 2019).
Swallow’s flights fit the pattern described by NDOT in 2013 to the state’s transportation board; the planes are used primarily by NDOT staff and employees, and available for use as available for other state agencies and purposes, such as last-minute transport for officials or prisoners and mapping using high quality aerial photographs. Because of Federal Aviation Administration regulations, the department has historically not charged other agencies for travel via the state-owned planes.
Over the eight-month period, the 38-year-old Aero Commander took 79 flights, primarily between Las Vegas and Carson City but many out of rural areas from Ely, Tonopah, Panaca and Battle Mountain. The state’s other plane, a Cessna Citation II, has been grounded all year because of maintenance issues.
NDOT said 78 percent of the Citation’s flights since July 2016 have been from its home base in Carson City to Las Vegas, while the Aero Commander had made 43 percent of its trips to the state’s major population center.
Other than Swallow, most of the other individuals who went on state plane flights were mid-level NDOT employees and photographers/cartographers, including:
- Robert Lee Bonner, a former Douglas County Commissioner and current planner for NDOT. He took 11 flights on the state plane.
- Brad Horn, a freelance Reno photographer, who took 11 flights on the state plane.
- Michael Murphy Glover, who according to TransparentNevada.com is a transportation planner and analyst for NDOT. He took 10 flights on the state plane.
Of the 164 individuals who reported taking flights on a state plane during the first eight months of 2019, only a handful were not directly employed by NDOT, and the vast majority (more than 100 individuals) only took a single flight on the aircraft.
Of the non-NDOT employees who rode the plane, Ford, elected in 2018, took four flights on the state plane (two in January and two in March, each from Las Vegas to Carson City).
A spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office confirmed that Ford, like representatives from other state agencies, had not reimbursed NDOT for the flights. But she said that he only took them when seats were available and as a way to save time and resources.
“Using the state plane, instead of flying commercially, is a means for AG Ford and this office to save taxpayer dollars,” spokeswoman Monica Moazez said in an email.
Cegavske also took one flight on March 11, from Las Vegas to Carson City. A spokeswoman for her office confirmed Cegavske had also not reimbursed the department for the flight, and that she made the trip to attend a meeting in Carson City. Gov. Steve Sisolak, who took multiple trips back to Las Vegas from Carson City during the legislative session, was not listed on any flight logs for use of the plane.
NDOT said in an email that it planned to change its policies going forward.
“While seats have been made available to other State employees in the past at no charge, non-highway funded agencies will be asked to pay a per-seat charge to cover the cost of operating the planes to reimburse the Highway Fund,” the agency wrote.
Commercial versus state planes
Although it sounds counterintuitive, NDOT staff say that use of a private plane is more cost-effective than booking airfare through a commercial airline. NDOT estimates that between the price of round-trip tickets, lost time getting to and from the airport and other costs, the state saves anywhere from $200 to $700 on each employee’s travel cost when using state planes.
According to an analysis provided to The Nevada Independent by the department, the ticket cost for a commercial (Southwest) flight between Reno and Las Vegas was $487.96, less than the cost per passenger for the state-owned Aero Commander ($562.12). But the analysis also takes into account time lost during travel to and through the airport, estimating that total travel time is higher on commercial flights (6.67 hours) compared to travel on state-owned planes (2.5 hours).
Including travel time factors, the department estimated a round-trip between Carson City and Las Vegas costs $915 per employee on commercial airlines, compared to $715 for the existing state plane. The estimated costs decreases to $406 per passenger with the newer aircraft, because of better fuel efficiency and faster speeds.
The cost of round trips to Elko are even more cost-effective on the state plane that using commercial flights — an estimated $352 per passenger cost and two-hour travel time on the state-owned Commander, compared to a $1,127 per passenger cost and 10-hour travel time using a commercial flight.
But why are the flights necessary, given the widespread use of videoconferencing and other telecommunication technologies?
Swallow told lawmakers during a March budget committee meeting that many of the 1,800 NDOT employees were based in Carson City, and needed to fly because face-to-face meetings with “stakeholders, funding partners, planning partners, or contractors” were necessary or not feasible to hold over videoconferencing. State-owned planes are also able to travel to NDOT’s regional offices in rural communities such as Tonopah, Ely and Elko, which saves the department and its employees hours of time that would otherwise be spent driving.
Democratic Assemblywoman Dina Neal, who chaired the budget subcommittee that reviewed NDOT’s budget for the two new planes, said lawmakers were receptive to the department’s request and wanted to move away from the older and more costly aircraft.
“We as a committee thought a 38-year-old plane and 32-year-old was pretty old for the state to be maintaining it,” she said.
It’s difficult to ascertain how many state governments own and operate their own private aircraft, but a 2012 study indicated that in total, state governments own and operate about 263 aircraft, compared to 1,264 owned by the federal government and 402 owned by counties and local governments.
Governors in other states — who sometimes have a more direct relationship with state-owned aircraft — have taken a variety of approaches toward using government-owned aircraft, with many electing to sell state planes as a show of fiscal restraint.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat with an estimated net worth of $3.2 billion, personally pays for private flights out of state. In one of his first moves after taking office in 2019, Republican Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt ordered the sale of the state airplane (something that media outlets pointed out had been done in 1993, with lawmakers quietly approving funding for another plane three years later). Former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens sold one of that state’s airplanes in 2017.
But some states have moved in opposite directions; Florida officials recently approved spending $15.5 million to purchase a nine-passenger jet for Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, after the state’s former governor sold all state-owned planes.