WRAL Investigates

NC's flight fleet expensive, underused, critics say

Most of the year, North Carolina Department of Transportation and Commerce aircraft sit in the state-leased hangar at Raleigh-Durham International Airport. Some wonder, could the private sector fly state leaders for less?

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Whether she's touring tornado damage or the dredging in the Oregon Inlet on the coast, Gov. Bev Perdue sometimes travels by state helicopter to get there.

For business trips to Washington, D.C., for example, she may take the state Cessna Citation Bravo, a fixed-wing passenger jet. However, most of the year, aircraft owned by the state departments of Transportation and Commerce sit in a leased hangar at Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

The WRAL Investigates team focused on passenger aircraft owned by the DOT and DOC and asked whether the private sector could fly state leaders for less.

North Carolina has 58 state-owned aircraft –14 fewer than a year ago. Reports by the Program Evaluation Division of the General Assembly led to the reduction.

Many planes are mission-specific for various departments within North Carolina government.

As aviation director for the DOT, Richard Walls says he's trying to ground inefficiencies in the state-owned air fleet. Commerce and DOT already merged their operations and sold two planes to save money.

“I don't think we're done yet. I think there's more we can do,” Walls said.

The fiscal year 2010-11 budget for everything from the hangar to insurance to staff is $1,857,589, which includes seven full-time pilots, three mechanics and a scheduler – two pilots are always on board each flight for safety purposes. Yet, a look at the flight hours for the four aircraft in the hangar shows limited use.

“Usually, you need to fly that aircraft 200 to 250 hours to reach a break-even point,” said Bill Graef, president of Aviation Management Group, a company that charters flights and provides centralized air fleet service.

A company like Graef’s stands to gain from picking up state business. He estimates private management could save DOT $600,000 to $1 million a year in operational costs and still offer the same level of safety and service.

Graef's company provides private management for WRAL's Sky 5 helicopter.

“Clearly, they should make the change because we'd all benefit. There's no reason to spend an extra million dollars just to hold an operation in place if you're not going to utilize it,” Graef said.

The state’s S-76 helicopter flew nearly 47 hours last fiscal year, which breaks down to less than an hour a week. The state’s Cessna Citation Bravo flew 176.5 hours last year.

The state’s King C90 Turbo Prop is packed with photography equipment for mapping and aerial data gathering. The rest of the fleet is for passenger travel, primarily economic development and shuttling around business people interested in locating in North Carolina.

On average last fiscal year, each aircraft flew about 120 hours.

“You gotta have the tools and resources you need to get the job done when needed,” Walls said, when asked to justify the cost.

Walls admits that selling state aircraft could bring in millions, but he warns against a knee-jerk reaction. Flight hours on existing planes continue to climb with consolidation. He's now waiting for more thorough analysis from the legislature's Program Evaluation Division, which released a report on aircraft under-utilization last year.

“Wherever that data takes us is what we do. Whether that's (to) sell more aircraft, then we do that. If it's (to) merge more flight departments, we do that. If it's a privatization model, we do that,” Walls said.

NC DOT - Flight Department

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Cullen Browder, Reporter
Keith Baker, Photographer
Randall Kerr, Producer
Kelly Hinchcliffe, Web Editor

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