Virginia governor entertained idea of buying private jet for state use

Three days after taking office, Gov. Terry McAuliffe authorized state officials to explore buying a private jet to fly him and top aides around Virginia on official business.

The idea, pitched to McAuliffe (D) as a potential money­maker because the plane could be rented out, was quickly scuttled, McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy said.

But not before one state Aviation Department official corresponded with Cessna about various options — and prices ranging from $9 million to $13 million.

“It has the large couch and you can still choose [paint] stripes,” Cessna sales associate Annabeth Killen wrote in a Jan. 30 e-mail to Steve Harris, director of the department’s flight operations and safety division.

The plane-shopping, however brief, is a potentially touchy subject for a wealthy governor who ran on a promise to provide health insurance to the poor and was forced to confront a $300 million revenue shortfall in May. It stayed under the radar until The Washington Post obtained records of it in the past week under a Freedom of Information Act request.

The state has two planes, both 2007 Beechcraft King Air 350 turboprops, to fly the governor, state agency staff and economic development officials around the state.

McAuliffe entertained the idea of buying a jet at the request of Aviation Department pilots, who have been lobbying for one as far back as 2006, during the administration of Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), Coy said.

The pilots approached McAuliffe on Jan. 14, when he took his first flight as governor. He and first lady Dorothy McAuliffe flew to Martinsville, near the North Carolina border, to attend the funeral of a Virginia State Police sergeant killed on duty Jan. 11.

“In meeting them, one of the [aviation] representatives says to him, ‘Governor, here’s our King Airs. We have two of them. Wouldn’t it be great if we had a jet?’ ” Coy said.

A jet would make for a roomier, more comfortable ride than the King Air, whose bathroom is so cramped it is “best suited for emergencies as opposed to routine use,” according to a recent review of the state’s air fleet conducted by Conklin & de Decker Associates of Massachusetts.

Cessna sales materials e-mailed to Harris played up the choice of luxury interiors: a
“fashion-forward” cabin with the “clean lines of modernist sculpture” or a leather-and-damask look meant to invoke “meticulously crafted, hand-bound volumes of nineteenth century literature.”

But Coy said McAuliffe was interested only in the pilots’ hard-nosed appeal — that a jet could save the state money.

“They make the case that not only is a jet more comfortable and faster, it could be more cost-
efficient because we could sell the two turboprops and make some money renting a jet out to hospitals and organ-transplant businesses, because the turboprops don’t fly fast enough to do certain types of organs and the jets do,” Coy said.

McAuliffe told the pilots that if it made economic sense, he was open to it. He told them to make their case to Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne.

Aviation officials moved quickly. On Jan. 30, about two weeks after the pilots’ encounter with McAuliffe, Harris was exchanging e-mails with Cessna’s Killen about the couch styles, paint options and potential delivery dates for the $9 million Citation CJ4 and the $13 million Citation XLS+.

“The Department of Aviation (DOAV) is requesting the approval of the purchase of an additional Executive Transport Aircraft (Citation CJ4) to fulfill the Governor’s request,” Randall Burdette, the department’s director, wrote in an e-mail to Harris on Feb. 3.

By Feb. 5, Harris was finalizing details for a day-long visit to Cessna’s Wichita headquarters, including a factory tour, lunch with senior company officials and a “product viewing” of the CJ4.

But the trip, like the plane purchase, never came to pass.

Nicholas Donohue, deputy secretary of transportation, said Layne was not convinced that buying a jet made economic sense. Donohue said aviation officials got a little ahead of themselves. Harris and Burdette did not respond to messages seeking comment. Cessna’s Killen declined to comment.

“The pilots, who are kind of like engineers and athletes, they always want the best gear,” Donohue said. “So if you talk to an athlete . . . they’re always wanting the best shoes. Just like an engineer, they want to build the strongest bridge that can move people as fast as possible — even if it’s not the bridge that will meet the needs.”

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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