Each weekday, commuter aircraft operated by the Illinois Department of Transportation fly two round trips between Chicago’s Midway Airport and Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport in Springfield.
The “Executive Shuttle Service,” which has been around for nearly 30 years, is available free of charge to elected state officials and high-ranking state employees traveling on government business between the Illinois capital and the state’s largest city.
But a Better Government Association and FOX 32 analysis found many shuttle flights are taking off with just one or two passengers aboard – which critics contend is a needless waste of public money at a time state-government finances are facing unprecedented turbulence.
What’s more, the very same state leaders who have failed to fix the state’s financial dilemma – brought on largely by staggering pension debt – are the ones often using the state airplanes.
Perhaps with this in mind, state officials abruptly changed course amid questions from the BGA and FOX, saying on Wednesday they plan to start limiting flights if there aren’t enough passengers.
“This week IDOT issued a directive that the shuttle will be canceled unless there are four or more passengers on at least one leg of each round trip,” IDOT spokeswoman Jae Miller said. “This policy adjustment is aimed at increasing efficiency.”
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The BGA and FOX conducted interviews on this topic, and reviewed state-government flight logs from Jan. 1, 2012 to Sept. 3, 2013 – the date the logs were requested under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. Among the findings:
- While the state’s four King Air 350 turboprop planes each seat nine passengers, 47 percent of the flights were less than half full, with four or fewer passengers on board.
- Of the more-than-1,500 flights during that period, 137 of them, or 9 percent, had just one passenger on board.
- Another 188 flights, or 12 percent, had two passengers.
- IDOT Secretary Ann Schneider, who reports to Gov. Pat Quinn, used the shuttle service more than anyone else, at 143 times. Illinois Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) had the most shuttle flights by an elected official, at 73.
- The top Republican user was Illinois Treasurer Dan Rutherford, at 32 trips. Rutherford is running for governor in the GOP primary. His spokeswoman said via email: “As a constitutional officer who does not have a residence in Chicago, the state shuttle allows Treasurer Rutherford to get to the Capital City and Chicago for state business in a more timely manner. Rutherford thinks the new rule makes sense, as we should always be looking for more ways to curb state spending.”
- Each flight costs about $3,000 to operate, according to IDOT. That means if the flight is full, it costs around $660 to fly each person round-trip. At the average of five people per flight, that’s $1,200 per person per round trip – well above what commercial air carriers normally charge for flights between Chicago and Springfield.
- The Executive Shuttle Service isn’t the only state air service. Quinn and his staff usually have access to one of the four King Airs when they need it. On occasion, other state leaders can obtain access to special flights as well.
- The shuttle service costs taxpayers roughly $4 million a year for maintenance, fuel, pilot salaries and the like. State agencies whose employees use the service reimburse IDOT $119 for each one-way trip.
Briefed on the BGA/FOX findings, state Rep. Bill Mitchell (R-Forsyth) described them as “amazing.”
“An absolute waste of taxpayers’ money,” said Mitchell, a veteran Decatur-area legislator who has introduced six bills in recent years to get rid of the shuttle service.
All of those bills died in the House, which is controlled by Illinois Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago). Madigan used the shuttle service 26 times, and flew on other state planes another 29 times during the period analyzed, records show.
Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said the shuttles are “a good utilization of time,” but added: “IDOT’s in charge of the program. If IDOT wants to make a change, change it. Nobody’s standing in their way.”
Cullerton spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon echoed that.
“[IDOT] is responsible for evaluating the efficiency and cost effectiveness of the scheduled flights,” Phelon said.
But IDOT aeronautics chief Susan Shea said her agency runs the shuttle program with the Legislature’s needs in mind. Legislators meet in Springfield for at least two sessions a year.
“I think we do a good job at trying to multi-task and put as many people on the plane as possible,” Shea said days before her agency reversed course and agreed to ground planes with too few passengers.
One of Illinois’ neighbors has handled air travel differently. Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad mothballed his state’s air fleet during his first stint in office in the 1980s, and when he needs to fly, he generally flies commercial. The same goes for members of the Iowa Legislature.
“Iowans would not go for that,” Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht said, referring to government aircraft. “This goes to show why Illinois is in such bad financial shape, and Iowa is running a surplus.
Illinois is facing $100 billion in unfunded pension liabilities, and the state’s backlog of unpaid bills is around $7.5 billion, according to the Illinois comptroller’s office. Since December 2008, Illinois’ credit rating has been downgraded 13 times – meaning it’s getting more and more expensive for state government to borrow money.
Meanwhile, there are cheaper alternatives than Illinois’ air shuttle service. Round-trip commercial flights from Chicago to Springfield next week are running around $206.
An Amtrak train ride costs about $40 per round trip.
“I don’t think they’re really taking this seriously,” Mitchell said, referring to state-government leaders. “We’re in a crisis, a financial crisis, and we have top state officials getting toted around the state of Illinois like you’re the Queen of England or something. It’s just mind-boggling.”
This article was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Patrick McCraney and FOX 32’s Dane Placko. They can be reached at (815) 483-1612 or email@example.com.