I-Team Report: The Air Defense

November 18, 2009 (CHICAGO) -- by Chuck Goudie and Ross Weidner The plane fleet is faster than a speeding train, can soar over the Illinois landscape like an eagle and cost $3,000 an hour in tax payer money.

State airplanes, that became a symbol of largesse and pompousness during the administration of former Governor Rod Blagojevich, now have state officials on "the air defense," as critics call for the planes to be grounded.

Ohio may have bred the Wright brothers and North Carolina boasts the first flight but in 2009, Illinois soars to new heights by providing state officials with regularly scheduled air service at taxpayer expense.

"It's a turbo prop, it's not a jet, but it gets us effectively from point A to point B," said Susan Shea, IDOT Director of Aeronautics.

Shea oversees hundreds of flights a year between points A and B as director of Illinois' Division of Aeronautics, part of the state transportation department.

"An airplane is a time capsule. It guarantees that you get a confidential, secure and efficient flight from point A to point B," said Shea.

Illinois has sixteen aircraft in its fleet, of which, there are four King-Air 350's and two helicopters used solely to shuttle state officials.

"It's certainly convenient. I'd take Amtrak, but the train gets in too late. I'd be late for three meetings," State Rep. Don Moffitt, (R) Galesburg.

The six executive aircraft owned by the state are worth nearly $22 million. Each nine passenger plane costs Illinois taxpayers $3,000 an hour to operate- nearly $4 million a year. Click here to find out the costs of each aircraft

At a time when Illinois has $3 billion in unpaid bills, what could possibly be worth the cost of flying state employees to work?

"Not to be having their mind concentrating on driving and watching what they're doing. They can just sit back, conduct work and have conversations with their colleagues. I'm sure that is worth the expenditure," said Susan Shea.

The state runs daily air shuttles between Springfield and Chicago; back and forth in the morning and the evening. It also provides ground transportation between Midway Airport and the Thompson Center. Who flew onboard state planes? Read here

"It's great for us to get up here so we can get into the office. If we had to take a cab to get here, God knows what the cost of that would be," said Rupert Borgsmiller, State Board of Elections.

"Of course it's convenient. It would be nice to have it. But we can't afford $3,000 an hour...It's a symbol of arrogance in Springfield, those days should be over," said Todd Dietterle, Common Cause.

Over and out is what government watchdog Common Cause recommends, by grounding the planes.

"It appears as if virtually anybody who works for state government, elected or non-elected, can get on the plane and go," said Dietterle.

By regulation, the governor and other constitutional officers have first dibs on state planes and the pecking order filters down from there.

State passenger logs for the past few months, obtained by the I-Team under the Freedom of Information Act, show the expected names including Quinn, Madigan and some Illinois Supreme Court judges.

But the records show hundreds of airplane trips by officials and their assistants from seemingly less urgent state agencies such as the Lottery, the Arts Council, the Liquor Commission; even the Council on Aging.

"So my question is, what are they rushing around to do?," said Dietterle.

The I-Team checked with other large states.

Most- such as California, Texas and Florida- don't fly daily shuttles for state employees. Their flights are for the highest ranking officials only and by appointment. The state of New York doesn't fly employees from the capitol of Albany to New York City. Pennsylvania says air travel is restricted to the governor and his staff but they rarely use it because of the image it sends.

In Illinois there are alternatives: commercial airline service between Chicago and Springfield on United and American, starting at about $150 each way. Amtrak offers state employees an $18 one way fare. By car the drive takes about a half-tank of gas and less than four hours.

"These are clearly the friendliest skies in Illinois," said Todd Dietterle.

IDOT officials describe state planes as "Chevy's not Cadillacs." However the fleet are outfitted with special counter-terrorism features you won't find on civilian planes.

Officials also point to recent cutbacks and the elimination of a midday shuttle to Chicago. But after our survey of large states, it is clear Illinois has more regular flights, for more officials, than any other.

Illinois House Resolution aimed at grounding fleet was tabled.

Auditor General's 2007 report on state aircraft

State Division of Aeronautics Web site: www.dot.state.il.us/aero/index.html

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