The two state-owned Beechcraft King Air prop planes parked inside a St. Paul Downtown Airport hangar on Monday don't look old from the outside, their gleaming white fuselages detailed with blue and yellow stripes that summon the color scheme of Minnesota's flag.
But crawl into their cramped cockpits, and the vintage-looking analog flight instruments betray the planes' respective 1993 and 1981 birth dates. Safety questions and maintenance costs raised by the planes' advancing age has prompted Gov. Mark Dayton, a regular passenger, to ask legislators for $10 million from the state treasury to replace them both. planes
"Since my body is one of the ones hanging up in the air there I have a personal investment, but I also have a philosophical belief that people who dedicate their lives to serving the people of Minnesota should not be required to sacrifice those lives because of dysfunctional or inadequate equipment," Dayton said at a recent budget presentation, adding that the planes "are reaching the end of their safe operations."
Dayton's request to replace the eight-seat King Air B200 and the six-seat King Air C90 comes as Republicans are using their new House majority to scrutinize spending by the DFL governor for items outside the core services that state government delivers. In recent days, House Republicans have hammered Dayton for distributing sizable pay raises to his cabinet members, to the tune of about $800,000 in additional pay per year.
"It's all about prioritizing," Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, said of Dayton's request for the new planes. Anderson has been a leading critic of the commissioner pay hikes, but said Tuesday that she is willing to hear arguments for why new planes are needed.
"My big concern is that with transportation being such a large part of our conversation this year at the Capitol, that it has to be measured against the need to fix our roads and bridges," Anderson said. "There might be some things that would be nice to have, but we have to look at how we prioritize spending overall."
Cassandra Isackson, director of MnDOT's Office of Aeronautics, said the agency has saved money on travel costs for employees across state government by using the planes. A plane can get to Bemidji and back in two hours, rather than the eight hours required by car, she said, saving hotel costs and work hours lost to driving. The planes fly an average of three to five times a week, usually carrying employees from multiple agencies.
All state agencies can book the planes, using their own travel budgets to cover flight costs. Those dollars are deposited into a revolving fund that's dedicated solely to paying maintenance costs for the planes.
MnDOT is by far the most frequent flying agency according to a tally released by the agency that showed its employees took more than 87 percent of trips on the planes in 2014. Isackson said those trips were mostly St. Paul-based traffic engineers, bridge inspectors and maintenance personnel with business around the state. She said the agency uses a formula to compare the costs of flying to driving in evaluating whether a trip is cost-effective.
Dayton's office was the second-ranked user of the planes last year, accounting for about 5.4 percent of the trips. Then came state Public Safety employees at 2 percent, and the University of Minnesota, at 1.4 percent.
MnDOT was unable to provide by Tuesday a full accounting of all passengers and where they flew in 2014. In all, 15 other state entities had employees that used the plane in 2014, including the state Senate.
Maintenance costs mount
The two planes are growing more costly to maintain as they age, MnDOT officials said, and planes are grounded for increasingly longer periods of time for repairs and upkeep. By the time an aircraft reaches 30 years old, agency officials said, it spends as much time in the shop as in the air. The state planes also are due for engine overhauls in the next four years that would cost between $250,000 and $300,000 per plane, MnDOT said.
Then there's the outdated flight equipment. Where new airplanes are outfitted with sophisticated computer imaging and other technological advances, the aged Beechcraft consoles are covered in dials, meters and switches that harken back to a pre-digital era. Jeff Flynn, MnDOT's chief pilot, said the equipment on new planes serves to enhance a pilot's "situational awareness" — that is, "everything that's going on around you, in your flight path and with your aircraft."
The Beechcraft planes are not unsafe, Flynn said. "But they're less safe."
Michael Boyd, a Colorado-based aviation consultant, affirmed that a 34- and 22-year-old plane should not be viewed as unsafe. But, he said, "They become maintenance hogs at that age. It gets very expensive to make sure they stay safe."
The estimated cost of buying two planes is $12 million. The state expects to get $2 million in trade-in on its two planes, which Boyd called overly optimistic, but that's how Dayton got to $10 million. He acknowledged at the budget briefing that it might be a tough sell to lawmakers. "It'll be pared down, I expect," Dayton said. "Certainly the agency should be scrutinized very carefully for them, the expenditures."
The safety of politicians on small airplanes has had a special resonance in Minnesota ever since the 2002 death of U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, his wife and other passengers in a small plane crash near Eveleth. Dayton was the state's other U.S. senator at the time, and a friend and political ally to Wellstone.
"My basic principle is that people ought to be able to get on a public plane, and it's safe," Dayton said.
Patrick Condon • 651-925-5049