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  • An excerpt from the unanimous ruling in the Schiavo case
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    Two aging planes remain in state fleet

    By DIANE RADO

    © St. Petersburg Times, published September 30, 2000


    TALLAHASSEE -- An aviation consultant recommended six months ago that the state "immediately replace" two of the three planes used to fly Gov. Jeb Bush and other top government officials on state business.

    So far, nothing has been done about the state planes, described as aging, more prone to maintenance problems and lacking technology that "would assist flight crews to be both safer and more efficient." One of the state planes is 24 years old, the other is 19.

    "Recommendation: Immediately replace both the C90 and 200 King Air aircraft with new aircraft equipped with state-of-the-art equipment; plan to do the same for the 300 within five years," Professional Aviation, Inc., of Wilmington, N.C., said in a March 17 report that went to the agency that oversees the state fleet.

    Tempering the recommendation somewhat, the consultant also reported the three state planes have been properly maintained and inspected and "are considered to be operated in a safe and airworthy condition."

    At the time the report was delivered, Thomas McGurk, a former Air Force pilot, was in charge of the state aircraft fleet as secretary of the Department of Management Services. He said Friday that there was no need to act immediately on the report.

    "There's nothing that says these planes are not safe," McGurk said. "You're never going to jeopardize anyone on the airplane. Nothing in this (the consultant's report) led me to believe that I was jeopardizing anything."

    However, McGurk acknowledged, "In a perfect world of unlimited budgets, I would replace those two airplanes."

    The problem has been more political than budgetary: Over the years, the state planes have been criticized as an expensive perk for public officials. It now costs about $1,000 an hour to use the planes, though they are far from luxurious. The turboprop planes are generally cramped and noisy.

    But McGurk said one lawmaker asked him earlier this year: "Why don't you take the governor around on a bus?"

    McGurk now is in charge of another state agency. The new secretary at the department, Cynthia Henderson, said Friday that the agency is reviewing the consultant's report and still has time to amend its budget recommendations for the next fiscal year.

    The planes were built between 1976 and 1985 and have been flown more than what is considered an average number of hours in the industry.

    Demand is so high that the state fleet can't accommodate all requests. Between Oct. 1, 1999 and Feb. 17, 2000, 253 flights were denied because a plane or pilot wasn't available.

    There are nine pilots for the three planes, said Ed Underwood, who oversees the fleet. Top priority to fly is given to the governor, lieutenant governor, the elected officials on the Florida Cabinet, the chief justice of the Supreme Court and the state Senate president and House speaker.

    Underwood said the state planes are safe, and he objected to the consultant's recommendation that the planes be replaced immediately. "Immediately may have been a poor choice of words on the part of the consultant," he said.

    The consultants said maintenance costs for a 20-year-old plane are 50 percent higher than for a 5-year-old plane.

    "As aircraft age, their systems begin to experience increasing wear and deterioration. A natural consequence of these effects are increasing amounts of maintenance required and a decrease in dispatch reliability" the report states, meaning a plane is less likely, because of maintenance problems, to take off.

    The report noted that aviation electronics are constantly being updated and that newer technology is "inherently more reliable."

    The consultant estimated that a new plane would cost $4.6-million and a 1990 plane would cost $2.3-million. Annual operating expenses would add up to $443,800 for an additional plane.

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