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Frequent fliers on public planes: Texas A&M officials rack up million-dollar bill annually on specially hired flights

By   /   March 25, 2010  /   No Comments


   
Photo illustration by Lynn Walsh, lynn@texaswatchdog.org
Story Highlight
$900K per year spent on specially hired flights
Flights within driving distance billed at $2K
Most expensive trips taken by department heads
Thu Mar 25 19:33:00 2010 CST
By Mark Lisheron, Texas Watchdog

To make a meeting on the morning of May 27, 2008 at Fort Hood, then-A&M President Elsa Murano boarded the university's Hawker Beechcraft King Air B200 at Easterwood Airport in College Station for a flight of 113 miles and a roundtrip cost of $1,466.

Two days later, to attend a scheduled hearing, Murano got on the same plane for a 106-mile morning hop to Austin. The cost was $1,173.

That fall, a department head and two associate directors used a school plane to get to El Paso for an agriculture meeting. The roundtrip flight was billed at $5,685 or $1,895 a person.

Ranking administrators, regents and educators at Texas A&M are not your average travelers, judging from two years of flight records such as these that were reviewed by Texas Watchdog. Their discretion is broad enough that on many occasions they dispensed with the kind of mental equations involving time, distance and money that most people make when deciding to fly or drive.

Over a three-year period ending last year, Texas A&M spent just under $2.7 million on aircraft operations — or nearly $1 million annually.

That's as state officials continued to increase the cost to attend the school. Tuition and fees increased by 13.7 percent from the $6,899 for the school year ending in 2007 to the $7,844 for the school year ending in 2009. 

In reviewing the history of all flights made by the two-airplane A&M fleet from Nov. 1, 2007 to Oct. 31, 2009, Texas Watchdog gave wide berth for the need to move important people quickly in a state as large as Texas and to places not served by commercial airports. We gave a pass on flights where there were several passengers going long distances, even if they could have saved several hundred dollars by flying commercial. 

Still, we found 35 eyebrow-raising flights costing taxpayers more than $75,000. This as state agencies are considering foregoing textbook purchases, laying off prison guards and slashing overtime for border security to meet mandated budget cuts in a tepid economy.

We found:

  • Most flights involved travel no more than a three-hour drive from College Station.


  • Most were taken to places where there are commercial flight alternatives.


  • And far from emergency or priority use, many were taken to meetings that were regularly scheduled or scheduled in advance.

 

View Texas A&M flights in a larger map

DISCRETIONARY FLIGHTS COULD BE CUT: STATE REP. JOAQUIN CASTRO

State Rep. Joaquin Castro, vice-chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, said that it may be time for the legislature to tighten the rules governing when an official may use publicly owned airplanes. Castro, D-San Antonio, said he was fairly certain these kinds of flights would also serve to guide university administrators as they present their travel budgets for approval.

"I would hope that in good conscience that as they offer up their budget cuts they would look at these discretionary flights rather than turning to items that are central to the mission, which is education," Castro said.

State agencies have previously been criticized for their use of private planes. In 2008 KPRC Local 2 in Houston examined the $6 million spent over two years on state Department of Transportation planes, which operate separately from the A&M fleet. Also that year, the San Antonio Express-News highlighted the state auditor's criticism that the TxDOT fleet was operating at a loss and reported on increasing state plane use.

AUSTIN — Five years after Texas leaders tried to disband the state's airplane fleet, officials still call on the service to fly them to meetings, awards ceremonies, funerals and even a neighboring GOP governor's inauguration. …

The Texas Department of Transportation, which oversees the fleet, expects it to log 1,227 more flight hours — for a total of 3,350 or about $2.3 million worth of flying time — in this two-year budget period than the last.

Legislative leaders in 2004 questioned the need for the Texas A&M and the University of Texas to have fleets after learning that little analysis had been done comparing the cost of commercial flights or driving. Castro said he believes the fleets serve a valuable service in a far flung state, but that school leaders need to take a hard look at how and how often the planes are used.

"Especially in tough budget years we have to make sure funds are being spent on priority items," Castro said.

Current A&M President R. Bowen Loftin said the university should reduce travel costs prior to an official call for a voluntary 5 percent budget cut statewide, A&M spokesman Jason Cook said. Loftin pledged to reduce his own travel costs and said the university intends to cut its overall travel expenses by $732,000 to help meet its 5 percent budget reduction requested  by Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus.

Cook, however, said there will remain times when the president and other top university officials needed the time savings and scheduling flexibility afforded them by the private fleet.

"Serving as president of a major research university such as Texas A&M is extremely demanding, and the president's time is precious and valuable," Cook said. "It is a 24/7 position that requires direct involvement with a large number of constituencies, and there are simply a finite number of hours in a day."

From the records, Murano was the top official most conscious of the preciousness of time at A&M. Murano, whose clashes with System Chancellor Mike McKinney ended with her resignation in June after less than 18 months in office, took seven of the 35 flights. 

These day trips from College Station to Austin, Houston, San Antonio, Killeen and Brady were billed at between $1,000 and $2,000.

Two major airlines serve College Station to the major cities in Texas. A quick check of prices online shows that a passenger booking with only a day's notice can fly commercial to Austin and San Antonio for $322, to Houston for $306 and Dallas for $373. With two weeks notice, the prices drop considerably.

The cost to rent a luxury car for a day in College Station is $70.

$4K FLIGHT FOR REGENT AND WIFE

Murano's flight manifests show her specially hired flights were mostly to attend meetings. Cook said he was unable to elaborate on her reasons for not flying commercial or driving to those functions because she's no longer with the school.

Having reviewed each of those manifests, Cook said Murano and other officials followed school guidelines for taking the flights.

"For a university president earning $425,000 such as here at Texas A&M, one hour in the workday equates to more than $200," Cook said. "What must be factored in any cost analysis is the time spent waiting to board a plane, waiting for a connecting flight, delays at airports or sitting in traffic."

A&M's flight service solves these problems for its regents by dispatching planes to pick them up.

Regents, Chancellor McKinney and interim president Eddie Davis were responsible for 13 of the 35 flights.

On Aug. 13, for example, an A&M plane flew 240 miles to Paris to pick up Regent Gene Stallings and his wife and bring them back to College Station for a speech. The following day the plane returned the pair to Paris. The total cost: $4,018.

"In many of the cases cited for regent travel, direct air service from College Station is not available," Cook said. "Serving as a member of the board of regents is an unsalaried position. As such, we try to minimize their time commitments as much as possible."

Some of the most expensive trips were taken by department heads. Over two days in October of 2008 Mark Hussey vice-chancellor for Texas AgriLife Research and two of his top associate directors were in El Paso for an AgriLife meeting. The roundtrip flight was billed at $5,685 or $1,895 a person.

Assuming the men had no time to plan in advance, they could have booked a commercial flight from College Station to El Paso, although it is not a direct flight – on the day they wanted to travel for $717 roundtrip. Had they two weeks to make plans that same commercial flight would be $230. Cook said Hussey did not have enough time in his schedule to fly commercial.

There seemed to be plenty of time for Suzanne Deatherage, assistant director of the school's AgriLife Extension, and two of her colleagues to plan ahead for diversity training in September of 2008 in San Angelo, 306 miles from College Station. Cook said scheduling conflicts made it impossible for anything other than a day trip by private plane in at a cost of $2,580 or $860 per person.

Other than wanting to avoid Houston traffic, Cook had no explanation for why Kenneth L. Peddicord, then head of the Texas Engineering Experiment Station, took the private plane on July 25, 2008 for the 140-mile trip to Galveston to discuss research opportunities.

Peddicord and a colleague, who could have rented a luxury car for $70 a day, billed the school $953 each.

Cook said he expects that all trips will be given closer scrutiny and may require additional planning with the budget tightening. "Usage of system aircraft," Cook said, "will, of course, be a consideration as part of these budget reductions."

 

Contact Mark Lisheron at mark@texaswatchdog.org or 512-299-2318.

 

Photo illustration by Lynn Walsh, lynn@texaswatchdog.org, using photo of a plane by flickr user katsniffen and photo of a roll of money by flickr user Refracted Moments. Photos adapted under the Creative Commons license.

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