Alaska's jet mostly carries prisoners

Posted: Sunday, March 12, 2006

Gov. Frank Murkowski racked up 44 hours of flying time in the state jet during the aircraft's first three months of use in Alaska, at a cost of about $73,500.

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Over that period, "executive transport" - which usually means the governor is flying, but can also include executives from his office - accounted for 17,758 miles flown in the jet, including trips to Seattle, Dallas and Las Vegas, according to state records.

But the governor's travel accounted for just 23 percent of the $2.7 million Westwind II jet's 195 hours in the air during that three-month period. Fifty-eight percent of the jet's air time was spent transporting prisoners to and from Scottsdale, Ariz., where the state leases jail space in nearby Florence.

The Associated Press analyzed Department of Public Safety records from Nov. 8, when the jet first started flying state missions, to Feb. 5.

Murkowski fought to buy the jet for more than a year and a half, dismissing the popular outcry in letters to the editor in newspapers across the state from people who called it a luxury item unsuited for Alaska's many short and unpaved runways.

The governor shrugged off a rejection by the federal government to buy the jet with Department of Homeland Security money and he bypassed the state Legislature when lawmakers did not include funding for the aircraft in the state budget.

The jet was finally bought in November through a line of credit the state has with Key Bank that does not require legislative approval.

The state planned to offset the cost by selling one of the Department of Public Safety's two King Air propeller planes, but that plane has not yet been sold, according to the department.

Public Safety Commissioner Bill Tandeske, whose department operates and maintains the jet, said he has been pleased with the aircraft's performance.

"It's a solid aircraft, it performs well," Tandeske said. "It's certainly much, much faster than anything we've had before. It makes prison transport easier."

It's also more costly. Public Safety records show the jet costs the state $1,674 per hour of flying time, compared to $831 per hour in the air for the state's King Air planes.

However, the jet flies faster than the King Air planes, meaning less air time compared to the propeller planes, said Dan Spencer, the Department of Public Safety's director of administrative services.

Those figures do not include ground costs and maintenance contracts.

Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, a vocal critic of the jet's purchase whose close scrutiny of its usage prompted criticism by Murkowski Chief of Staff Jim Clark in January, said he is trying to learn what those costs are.

"I think it's fair for Alaskans to ask, how much extra does the convenience cost? I don't think we know the answer to that," Elton said.

Neither do administration officials. Spencer said when the department was putting together its budget proposal for next year, officials did not have a good estimate of what the total cost of operating the jet would be, so the department made the same budget request as this year.

In the next budget cycle, the department will have a better idea of what to ask for, he said.

The Department of Public Safety bills the governor's office and the Department of Corrections for aircraft usage. However, an analysis of the governor's proposed budget and supplemental spending requests does not show line items that cover the costs of the jet's usage.

The governor's office budget request for 2007 lists a $270,000 item for aircraft services, which is just $20,000 above what was approved last year.

Linda Perez, the governor's administrative director, said the governor's office did not have an hourly cost rate for the jet when the budget was being prepared.

If jet costs run over budget, the governor's office will look at other sources of funds available, such as vacant positions, Perez said.

Elton said he is satisfied that the primary use of the jet is for prisoner transport, but he questions whether private jet is the most cost-effective way to shuttle prisoners to and from Arizona.

It would be cheaper to fly commercial, he said.

Department of Corrections records reflect that. In response to a public records request, the department released data showing that 98 state prisoners were flown back and forth from Arizona between Nov. 8 and Feb. 5.

Of that number, 90 were transported by the jet and eight by commercial flights. The cost per-prisoner to fly by state jet was $2,160. The cost per-prisoner on Alaska Airlines was $1,482.

Those costs are for flying time only, and include the cost of prisoner transportation officers accompanying the inmates.

However, said Department of Corrections spokesman Richard Schmitz, commercial airlines flight availability is limited, as is the number of inmates allowed per flight. Plus, "inmates with a history of assault and violence cannot generally be transported in this manner," Schmitz wrote in response to the records request.

Murkowski used the jet several times over the three-month period to travel from Juneau to Anchorage and, on occasion, to Fairbanks.

The Nov. 27 trip to Dallas was to transport administration officials to stranded gas negotiations. The jet flew to Las Vegas that night to pick up the governor and his wife, who were returning from vacation in Hawaii, and bring the governor to the Dallas meeting.

Murkowski also used the jet to fly to Seattle on Jan. 20 for the christening of the Stikine, the Prince of Wales Inter-Island Ferry Authority's second ferry.

Murkowski spokeswoman Becky Hultberg said the governor's use of state aircraft has not changed since the jet's purchase.

"I know of no decision to use the jet in any way differently than the usage of the King Air," Hultberg said.

The governor prefers the jet, though. Public Safety documents show the governor traveled by state jet four times more than he traveled by King Air for the Nov. 8 through Feb. 5 period.

Besides prisoner transport and the governor's use, the jet's usage was divided between pilot training, transporting law enforcement officers, a test flight, maintenance flights and to ferry the jet from one location to another.

Over the three-month period, records show the jet was out of service from Jan. 13 until Jan. 19, when it had to be flown to Arizona for maintenance. A temperature indicator in one of the engines malfunctioned, and there is nobody in Alaska qualified to do the service work required, said Public Safety Deputy Commissioner Ted Bachman.

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