Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine resumes use of state planes, often as the only passenger

Laura A. Bischoff
The Columbus Dispatch
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine comes off the plane at Lunken Airport before a press conference on the rising COVID-19 numbers in Ohio on Friday, Oct. 16, 2020, at Lunken Airport in Cincinnati. The press conference came after record number of cases being reported in Ohio of 2,039 new cases on Wednesday, 2,178 on Thursday and 2,148 on Friday.

The state-owned passenger planes are based at OSU Airport in Columbus, but in recent months the pilots have been flying the aircraft 38 miles southwest to Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport to pick up Gov. Mike DeWine and sometimes his wife, Fran DeWine.

In 11 of 16 trips on the state-owned passenger planes in 2020 and so far in 2021, the first and last legs were between OSU and Springfield, according to flight records maintained by the Ohio Department of Transportation.

DeWine's Greene County farm is 10 miles south of the Springfield airport.

The couple have been staying at the farm more often during the pandemic, given that they had traded in-person meetings in Columbus for video conferencing and phone calls in an effort to limit contact outside their household, said DeWine Press Secretary Dan Tierney.

DeWine has not reimbursed taxpayers for the flights between OSU and Springfield.

"The governor has neither used the Springfield airport nor the state plane to commute to Columbus, but instead for travel to farther locations in Ohio," said Tierney in a written statement. So, personal billing isn't necessary or appropriate, he said.

Following a state audit, lieutenant governor Mary Taylor reimbursed the state $1,039.50 for either being picked up or dropped off at Akron-Canton Airport – about 6 miles from her home – by an ODOT plane in 2011.

DeWine's first year in office – 2019 – represented a more typical use of the state passenger planes. The governor made 28 trips at a cost of $39,343 and often took Lt. Gov. Jon Husted, department directors and communications staff along with him.

Gov. Mike DeWine gets off his plane at Lunken Airport for a press conference Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020. DeWine traveled across the state to enforce the curfew and the importance of masks and social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic.

But from the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in March to September 2020, DeWine didn't use the state-owned planes. When he got back on the planes beginning in October 2020, the only passengers were the governor and the first lady. Roughly two weeks after the couple received their second dose of the Pfizer-made vaccine, members of the governor's communications team began flying with them again.

"Air travel often helps Gov. DeWine be in more places to accomplish more for the state of Ohio and get more work done for Ohioans. Ohio is a large state geographically, covering more than a dozen media markets serving over 11 million Ohioans. Using air travel allows Gov. DeWine to deliver important messages to Ohioans in multiple local media markets more quickly than using car travel exclusively," Tierney said.

Last fall, DeWine barnstormed across Ohio, holding multiple press conferences per day in airport hangars to push the COVID-19 messages: stay home, wash hands, wear a mask, keep your distance. The cost to use the state plane for those media-only events: $19,268.

The total cost of 2020 ODOT plane travel was $25,061. The costs for DeWine's eight trips so far in 2021 have yet to be calculated, an ODOT spokesman said.

More:The story behind the scheduled state plane trip before HB 6 vote

Ohio has long owned planes for executive use.

Ohio's history of planes for executive use

In 2015, ODOT traded in two planes that had been manufactured in 1973 and 1982, getting $1.3 million for the pair; the state purchased a $4.25 million, seven passenger Beechcraft King Air 250 that was manufactured in 2013 and a $6.7 million, nine passenger Beechcraft King Air 350i.

They cost $440 an hour to operate. Typically, the governor has first dibs on use but other appointed and elected officials may request and use them for state business travel.

The state also owns aircraft used by the Ohio State Highway Patrol for traffic enforcement, search and rescue and other work and by ODOT for construction project monitoring and mapping.

In 2012, the Ohio Auditor's office released a report recommending that ODOT sell off under-utilized and back-up aircraft, maintain flight records for a longer period, and establish clear policies of what constitutes official business.

Mary Taylor served as state auditor and lieutenant governor. (Columbus Dispatch photo by Doral Chenoweth III)

Auditors also found that ODOT planes were routed for Mary Taylor's convenience to drop off or pick up at the airport near her house and that then-House speaker William Batchelder, R-Medina, used a state plane to return from a private function. Both Taylor and Batchelder reimbursed the state for the cost of those flights.

In 2008, then state auditor Taylor criticized Democrat Marc Dann's heavy use of the state planes during his 16 months as state attorney general: 16 flights, including two in which the aircraft flew from Columbus to Youngstown to pick him up.