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Gov. Josh Shapiro Uses Pennsylvania’s State Plane Much More Than His Predecessor

by Stephen Caruso of Spotlight PA

Photo courtesy of Leise Hook / For Spotlight PA

Pennsylvania taxpayers paid $410,000 for state flights last year, the most since 2011. Shapiro took most of those flights.

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The two-engine, eight-seat Beechcraft King Air 350i took off from a small regional airport across the Susquehanna River from Pennsylvania’s state capital at 3:22 p.m. on Aug. 17.

After a two-hour flight, it arrived at Hilton Head Island in South Carolina, a ritzy vacation spot known for beaches and golf courses, to meet its passenger — Gov. Josh Shapiro.

The next day, the plane left Hilton Head at 7 a.m. for a flight back to Pennsylvania, bringing Shapiro to Scranton. It then deposited the Democrat back in South Carolina a little before 3 p.m.

One last two-hour flight returned the plane to Harrisburg, where it arrived around 5:40 p.m. on Aug. 18.

The four-leg journey cost taxpayers just over $13,000 and was the longest and most expensive of 113 trips that Pennsylvania’s state-owned plane made during Shapiro’s first year in office.

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All told, the plane accrued more than nine days of flight time ferrying Shapiro, Lt. Gov. Austin Davis, Attorney General Michelle Henry, and other state officials around the commonwealth and the country in 2023. The total bill to taxpayers was $410,000, the most they have paid for state flights since 2011, according to available data.

August’s journey, revealed in publicly available logs analyzed by Spotlight PA, shows the heavy use the Shapiro administration has made of the plane as he has barnstormed the state. The aircraft has sometimes touched down in as many as seven airfields around the commonwealth in a single day.

As many as two-thirds of the costs of those flights were accrued directly by the governor’s office, a dramatic increase in plane travel compared to Shapiro’s predecessor, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

But Shapiro’s administration, as well as former executive branch staffers, have argued that the plane connects people with their government officials.

According to an administration spokesperson, such outreach includes when Shapiro became the first governor to visit Punxsutawney for Groundhog’s Day since 2012; a May visit to White Haven to open a new state park entrance; and an October stop in Kinzua Bridge State Park to announce hundreds of thousands of dollars in state investments for the region.

“Pennsylvanians expect their Governor to be out in their communities listening, learning, and delivering — not just sitting behind a desk in Harrisburg,” Shapiro’s spokesperson Manuel Bonder said in a statement, “and that’s why Governor Shapiro has always kept an aggressive and rigorous travel schedule that has taken him to every county in our Commonwealth several times over.”

In his first year in office, Shapiro surpassed Wolf’s busiest air travel year, racking up $270,000 in fuel, maintenance, and personnel expenses during almost 150 hours of flight time in 2023. Wolf used the aircraft most in 2018, the last year of his first term, in which he spent a little more than 77 hours in the air, costing $136,000. Former GOP Gov. Tom Corbett’s busiest flight year was 2014, in which he spent almost 84 hours in the plane, costing taxpayers $103,000.

There are some caveats. The state’s flight data, which it must report under a 2012 law, lump together trips by day. An official may be listed as a passenger even if they took just one leg of a day’s flight plan that covered multiple stops.

The reasons for the trips aren’t always clear despite a state law requiring agencies to report their “public purpose.” But piecing together Shapiro’s incomplete public schedule, public media reports, and flight logs shows that he has used the plane to travel to a mix of public announcements, private meetings with officials across the country, and even a Phillies playoff game.

Some government watchdogs say the resulting travel expenses are way too high.

“The governor does not need a taxpayer-funded air force to travel,” Eric Epstein, a longtime good-government advocate, told Spotlight PA, arguing Shapiro could take more remote meetings.

“You don’t build relationships or get a budget done by racking up frequent flyer miles,” he added.

Former Gov. Tom Wolf boards the state plane in 2016. Photo courtesy of Commonwealth Media Services

‘Not easy to get around’

PennDOT currently owns one aircraft, the King Air 350i, which it bought in 2019 for $7.75 million.

According to the Wheels Up website, a private charter flight company, the King Air 350i is “the perfect private plane for short-haul flights.” The company praises the plane’s advanced noise cancellation technology, inflight Wi-Fi, ability to land at small airfields, and “room for all.”

Maintaining the plane costs about $487,000 a year between the cost of a hangar lease at Capital City Airport — a 320-acre, two-runway airstrip in York County that mostly handles single-engine aircraft — a maintenance contract, and salaries for the agency’s three pilots.

According to PennDOT’s written policy, “use of state aircraft can often be the most economical means of travel, particularly if several senior staff members are traveling more than a 2 1⁄2 hour drive from Harrisburg.”

The plane, the policy adds, can be used when commercial flights “are not available to reach the travel destination”; when commercial flights do not accommodate state officials’ time constraints; when those traveling “must conduct Commonwealth business enroute,” or when “security, threat level, or operational requirements preclude use of commercial airlines or other forms of transportation,” such as in emergency and disaster situations. The policy also says that the plane may not be used to commute.

Despite the policy, it’s hard to pinpoint why officials took each 2023 ride. State law requires agencies to report the “public purpose of the trip,” but in practice, they do not. PennDOT listed every flight as either “business” or “maintenance” last year. Shapiro also doesn’t release a complete public schedule.

The governor has top priority in booking flights, followed by the lieutenant governor, then statewide elected commonwealth officials, members of the governor’s cabinet and senior staff, board, and commission chairs, and legislative leadership — all on a first-come, first-serve basis.

The plane’s single busiest day last year, according to PennDOT records, was Oct. 24. It took off from Capital City Airport at 8:11 a.m. and did not return to its hangar until almost 11 hours later, just after 7:15 p.m.

Along the way, it made seven stops — including in Philadelphia, York, Pittsburgh, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Wilkes-Barre — with Shapiro, PennDOT Secretary Mike Carroll, Department of Community and Economic Development Secretary Rick Siger, and staff listed as passengers.

While Shapiro does not release his entire schedule, his website notes he attended two public events that day: the opening of an Amazon fulfillment center in York at 10:15 a.m. and Westinghouse’s announcement of new nuclear technology outside Pittsburgh at 1:30 p.m.

(The latter event was originally planned for June but was delayed to allow Shapiro to appear at the announcement, according to an email acquired by Spotlight PA through a public records request.)

Gov. Josh Shapiro attended the opening of an Amazon fulfillment center in York, in October 2023. Photo courtesy of Commonwealth Media Services

Driving more than halfway across the state would have taken three and a half hours. But Shapiro was able to get from York to Pittsburgh in 40 minutes on the plane, according to flight records.

All told, the plane spent a little more than four hours in the air that day and cost taxpayers $8,200.

That day highlights why the plane is necessary, said Adrian King, a top staffer for former Gov. Ed Rendell and ex-director of the state’s emergency management department.

At 300 miles east to west and nearly 200 miles north to south, Pennsylvania is “not easy to get around.”

“In my experience, Pennsylvanians want to see their elected leaders doing their job, be that at an economic development event, a policy announcement, or an emergency,” King told Spotlight PA. “The state plane is a tool that the governor can use to efficiently travel and interact with his constituents statewide.”

The approach has seemingly paid dividends. A recent Franklin & Marshall poll found that Shapiro had a 54% approval rating, the highest of any Pennsylvania governor at this point in his first term since the 1990s.

The plane hasn’t only been used for in-state travel. PennDOT’s records reveal four out-of-state trips, including the one to Hilton Head.

In May, Shapiro took the plane to New York to deliver the commencement address at his alma mater, the University of Rochester.

In September, Shapiro flew to Washington, D.C., for a six-hour stop during which he had private meetings with congressional leaders and spoke for a half-hour with The Atlantic, an administration spokesperson said.

And in October, Shapiro and the first lady flew to Springfield, Illinois, to meet with Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

The Hilton Head trip, the administration contended, was also state business. Shapiro was on a personal trip when the mother of U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) died, and he attended the funeral in his official capacity as governor, then returned to South Carolina.

The plane has also been used for building relationships. Flight logs show Shapiro was joined by state Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland) and Majority Leader Joe Pittman (R., Indiana) for a May 1 flight from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg.

Shapiro, Ward, and Pittman attended an event in Westmoreland County to plug an $81 million advanced manufacturing facility in New Kensington. The three then flew back to Harrisburg together, arriving in time for the two legislative leaders to attend a scheduled voting session.

Then, in July, amid stalled budget negotiations, Shapiro and top legislative staff flew to Indiana, Pennsylvania, in Pittman’s district, accompanied by the state Senate leader’s top staffer.

Shapiro also used the plane to attend at least two sporting events last fall. While tickets for both of those games were purchased by an outside nonprofit, Team PA, taxpayer dollars helped facilitate Shapiro’s attendance.

First, Shapiro was listed as a flight passenger on a multi-leg October itinerary in which the plane crisscrossed the state.

Records show the plane traveled between Harrisburg, Erie, and Philly, touching down in the latter so Shapiro could throw the first pitch at a Phillies playoff game.

A month later, Shapiro attended a Nov. 11 Penn State University home football game with two of his sons. The three of them were all listed as plane passengers that day, which saw the state aircraft travel from Harrisburg to University Park in time for a noon kickoff, to Philadelphia and back to Harrisburg. The day’s flights cost more than $4,500.

The state plane. Photo courtesy of Commonwealth Media Services

40 years of flights

A 1984 Pennsylvania law first authorized PennDOT to own a plane. Since then, governors, legislators, cabinet officials, state commission members, and other bureaucrats have all used it to carry out official business.

Former Gov. Tom Ridge, a Republican, holds the record for most flights in a year, according to PennLive; the Erie resident took 196 flights in 1998, a year when the commonwealth had two planes in use. Rendell, a Philadelphia Democrat who served from 2003 until 2011, averaged 56 flights a year in his first term, according to PennLive.

The plane received increased attention during Rendell’s tenure after a lobbyist joined the governor’s chief of staff on a flight. The incident sparked an audit of the plane’s logs, which found that PennDOT wasn’t maintaining complete records on the plane’s use by state officials and potentially violating federal aviation law.

The audit, which looked at the plane’s use between July 2002 and March 2007, also found that the aircraft had taken at least 1,083 flights in that period, costing almost $2.2 million.

In response, lawmakers approved a 2012 law mandating that PennDOT log and make available the date, destination, length, purpose, cost, and passengers on any flight using a state-owned or leased aircraft.

“When the state plane is used, the information required will answer the basic questions taxpayers want to have asked, like, is it legal, is it ethical, is it financially justifiable?” then-state Sen. Lloyd Smucker (R., Lancaster), the bill’s sponsor, said of the proposal on the chamber floor. “Here and elsewhere, that sort of disclosure discourages abuse.”

For a while, the expanded disclosure appeared to tamp down elected officials’ use of the state plane. State records show just 13 flights in 2011, the first year of the Corbett administration. However, use of the plane began to creep back up in the second half of Corbett’s tenure and then under Wolf. Corbett totaled 85 flights in his single term, costing almost $210,000; Wolf racked up 263 of them over eight years, costing almost $660,000.

Shapiro also played a role in the plane’s increased use in the latter half of the decade.

First elected as attorney general in 2016, he took his first state-funded flight in 2017. As attorney general, Shapiro’s office paid for 73 flights costing $265,000. PennDOT’s records only go back to 2011, and Shapiro was the only attorney general to use the plane during that time. The 2007 audit found the attorney general’s office had used the plane just once.

Shapiro’s successor, Michelle Henry, has also used the plane, albeit far less. Her office paid for eight flights in 2023, costing $31,000.

Brett Hambright, a spokesperson for Henry, told Spotlight PA that ground transportation is Henry’s “primary method.” When she flies, the decision “involves multiple factors, including time restrictions and safety considerations.”

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Three of her flights went out of state — two to Delaware and one to Washington, D.C. Hambright said those flights were to meet “government officials” without specifying who.

Neither of the state’s two other row officers — Treasurer Stacy Garrity and Auditor General Tim DeFoor — have caught a state flight.

Erik Arneson, a spokesperson for Garrity, told Spotlight PA that she “has not used the state plane, and we can’t currently envision a reason for her to do so.”

Instead, the Bradford County Republican either uses a state vehicle or her personal vehicle. If the latter, Arneson said, she does not submit for mileage.

DeFoor, a Republican from Dauphin County, also uses a state vehicle, said spokesperson April Hutcheson, which she argued is the most cost-effective option.

“There has not been a need for us to use the state plane,” Hutcheson told Spotlight PA. “We bundle trips to different regions to use the most effective travel methods and use of his time.”

BEFORE YOU GO… If you learned something from this article, pay it forward and contribute to Spotlight PA at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.

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