Topeka A group of faculty, staff and students at the University of Kansas is urging the administration to sell off its private jet, a move it says could generate upwards of $6.6 million immediately and save the university more than $1 million a year in operating costs.
The administration does not appear likely to do that, calling the plane an important business tool used for donor relations, athletics recruitment, and outreach initiatives by the KU Medical Center.
But the issue may come up anyway this year at the Kansas Legislature, where the chairman of the House budget committee has said he wants to review the entire state aircraft fleet, with an eye toward possibly liquidating some of them.
The recommendation to sell the plane came in an 88-page report by the University Senate’s Planning and Resources Committee that was released last spring, along with a separate report criticizing the administration for what it viewed as excessive consulting fees being paid out by KU.
Administration officials issued their written response to it in December.
The plane in question is a Cessna CJ4, a twin-turbine jet plane that seats up to 10 passengers and can fly at high speeds with a range of just over 2,000 miles.
But the report noted that most of the flights the plane is used for are for distances of less than 300 miles, with few passengers on board, and it suggests the university could easily get by using smaller, propeller-driven planes that KU’s Aerospace Engineering Department uses for educational and research purposes.
“It’s akin to owning a Lamborghini and using it to haul hay half a block to feed your horses. It’s that wasteful,” Ron Barrett-Gonzalez, an aerospace engineering professor at KU, and a member of the nine-member committee that approved the report, said in a phone interview. “We’ve got the wrong aircraft, we’re utilizing it the wrong way and it’s wasteful.”
The report analyzed the plane’s use over a period from January 2015 through February 2017 and found that 61 percent of the flights on the jet were for traveling less than 300 miles.
During that period, the jet was used to make 492 trips, or 494 flight hours, traveling a total of 157,955 nautical miles, or 580,088 passenger miles.
KU Athletics accounted for nearly half of the trips and about 62 percent of the flight hours. The KU Medical Center accounted for 16 to 27 percent of the plane’s utilization, depending on which measure is used, while the chancellor’s office accounted for about 10 to 15 percent.
The athletics department, however, does not pay for those trips directly.
“The (Federal Aviation Administration) regulations the University operates under require that all payments for flights come from the state treasury,” Chancellor Douglas Girod and Provost Neeli Bendapudi said in their written response to the report. “An allocation from general fees is made to the Department of Athletics, which the department may use to pay for air travel.”
Barrett-Gonzalez said he found that unacceptable.
“Kansas Athletics would probably like to show up in a jet on their recruiting trips. I understand that,” he said. “But the amount of wasted money in tight budgetary times, we just can’t justify.”
But what really grabbed the committee’s attention was the cost of operating the plane, at just over $1 million a year, the bulk of which goes toward salaries, fuel and maintenance. It was a figure that the committee said was probably too low.
“Missing from the accounting is the cost of capital for the jet, aircraft depreciation, utilities, hangar rent, and other nontrivial categories which would be included in accounting for an equivalent commercial operator,” the report stated.
Even with that low figure, however, the committee said KU’s operational costs were considerably higher than the industry average: $4,856 per flight hour, which the report said was 1.6 to 2.5 times higher than average; $15.01 per nautical mile flown, which is 6.2 times higher than average; and $3.95 per passenger mile, which the report said was nearly 10 times higher than average.
“There are several factors that are causing this, including low occupancy rates, low utilization rates and exorbitant expenses,” the report stated.
Girod and Bendapudi, however, defended the expense, saying in their written response, “Operational costs are more than offset by the benefits back to the university through funds received through philanthropic efforts and athletics as well as savings through opportunity and lost productivity cost avoidance.”
But Rep. Troy Waymaster, R-Bunker Hill, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said he is not yet convinced.
“We’re taking a look at all of the aircraft owned by the state of Kansas, and possible liquidation,” he said in a recent interview.
Last year, Waymaster said, he and fellow Appropriations Committee member Rep. J.R. Claeys, R-Wichita, began reviewing the state’s aircraft fleet.
“And there were some interesting things that popped up when we started looking into that,” he said. “Why some departments have an aircraft. And basically it’s owned by the state of Kansas and they have to get permission to use the aircraft, but still, they’re the frequent user of it. And that’s what kind of got me a little interested with this (KU) plane.”
Waymaster did not suggest that a specific proposal for selling off aircraft is currently in the works, but he indicated it would be part of the committee’s deliberations this year as it tries to balance the budget while still funding what could be a large increase in K-12 education spending.