January 25, 2009 in Idaho

Agency defends fleet of planes

Associated Press
 

BOISE – The Idaho Transportation Department’s fleet of three older airplanes is not extravagant and is needed for law enforcement and emergencies, officials with the agency say.

The agency was asked by lawmakers to justify having the fleet. A recent legislative audit found it cost about $350,000 a year to operate and maintain.

John DeThomas, the agency’s aeronautics division administrator, said the state is required by law to provide search and rescue services, including finding downed aircraft locator beacons.

“It is important we have two aircraft with this homing function in case one is down with repairs,” DeThomas told the Idaho Statesman.

Idaho’s newest airplane is a 30-year-old U.S. Army surplus King Air 200 twin-engine turboprop. It can hold 10 passengers and was given to the Idaho State Police in 1998. The other two planes are a 31-year-old single-engine Cessna 206 with five passenger seats and a 37-year-old single-engine Cessna 182 with three passenger seats.

Idaho Transportation Department Board Chairman Darrell Manning is a former legislator and former adjutant general of the Idaho National Guard.

He said he has been involved “one way or another” in every state emergency in the last several decades, and cited the collapse of the Teton Dam in 1976 as a reason why the state needed to retain its airplanes.

“We had to get people there, and we had no means to do so,” he said, adding getting rid of the state’s airplanes would be “foolhardy.”

He said the state needs to have emergency transportation, and if it didn’t have its own aircraft would have to use a charter plane.

However, agency officials said charter planes are not guaranteed unless one is kept on retainer, which would have an annual cost greater than the three aircraft the agency operates.

As for regular airlines, they serve only seven of Idaho’s 130 airports, and some state-managed land is accessible only from the state’s 30-backcountry airstrips.

The transportation department charges other state agencies $720 per flight hour to use the airplanes.

Last year, the King Air flew 150 times, including 42 flights with the governor or someone from his office on board.

“About half of those flights included representatives from other state agencies,” said Jon Hanian, spokesman for Gov. Butch Otter. The governor’s office used the King Air 30 times in 2007 and 50 times in 2006.

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