Gov. Herbert seeks $12.5M to buy two new state planes. But lawmakers question whether to sell off aging state craft and fly charter.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Two passenger airplanes operated by the state of Utah in a Salt Lake City hanger on Thursday Jan. 31, 2019. At left is a King Air C90B and at right is a Super King Air B200.

Legislators are weighing whether it may be time to sell off the state’s two passenger airplanes and instead use charter service — rather than spend $12.5 million to replace the aging aircraft.

But the Utah Department of Transportation said Thursday that would cost the state more money over the long term, and may hinder such things as flying in emergency medical help or offering clinics in rural areas on demand.

Gov. Gary Herbert proposes to buy two new aircraft that can carry up to a combined 18 passengers, up from the 14 that current planes can transport. But legislative analysts question if it would be more efficient to simply sell the state’s current two old planes — valued at $2.7 million — and start using private charter service.

UDOT operates the planes for all state agencies, which pay back operation costs. It says the biggest customers are the University of Utah and the Department of Health, which use them to provide medical help in rural areas.

The planes average 1,100 passengers a year. They also assist in search-and-rescue operations, including flying in search dog teams.

The governor also uses the airplanes on occasion — including to fly visiting dignitaries around the state. He must pay for it out of his own budget — just like other numerous state agencies that use them, said UDOT spokesman John Gleason.

As the planes age and require more repairs, their operation costs have increased — as have the amounts charged back to agencies. UDOT figures the new planes would decrease operation costs by 16 percent, and carry more people.

Jason Davis, deputy director of UDOT, told an appropriations subcommittee that his agency figures the planes save the state $320,000 a year in mileage, hotel and per diem costs of employees.

For example, he said doctors traveling to remote rural areas could require a day of travel in each direction by automobile plus a day of work, instead of flying in and returning the same day.

Davis said the state planes also fly into rural airstrips and are available to go anywhere quickly on short notice — which charter services may not do.

“Charter services fly to places they can make a profit, and they fly on a schedule that they book ahead of time,” he said. “They are not on-demand.”

Rep. Walt Brooks, R-St. George, said he originally questioned the purchases. But after appropriators studied data in recent months, he concluded “it does justify the cost of these planes for what they are doing.”

He added, “They are always being used. It really is an asset. I think it has provided a great benefit to the state.”