OKLAHOMA CITY — When Gov. Kevin Stitt headed to Washington, D.C., this week to testify before Congress, he climbed aboard a commercial Southwest Airlines jet.
When the state’s top executive needed to jet back hurriedly from McAlester to host a press conference at the Capitol to discuss tribal gaming compact negotiations, Stitt jumped aboard a state helicopter.
Past governors could have used the Spirit of Oklahoma, the state’s plush, private plane, but Stitt has gotten more creative with his travel plans since he off-loaded the gubernatorial jet to save money.
Now approaching eight months without the plane, his staff said the Republican governor doesn’t regret the choice to sell it. Stitt said it cost taxpayers about $1 million a year.
“The governor would say there (have) been constraints at times, but not to the point that he would go buy an airplane just for himself,” said Donelle Harder, a senior adviser to governor.
Stitt prefers to drive around Oklahoma because he likes to make multiple stops, use the time to make phone calls and hold meetings, she said.
Still, when Stitt meets with other governors, one of the first questions asked is why he’d sell the gubernatorial airplane, Harder said. She said Stitt still has access to other state-owned aviation options, but they’re smaller and slower than the King Air 350.
When he opts to fly privately in one of the remaining smaller options, he definitely stands out when parked amid a field of more expensive, higher-end gubernatorial rides.
“You can tell a difference,” Harder said. “They’re nicer. They’re fancier. They’re logoed.”
Oklahoma sold its plane at auction in March for $1.27 million, said Jake Lowrey, with the Office of Management and Enterprise Services. The proceeds from the sale funded the state trooper academy.
The majority of the nation’s governors have a plane.
But business leaders aren’t judging the state by its air fleet, Harder said. They’re more interested in its policies and interacting with Stitt.
He believes in leveraging and sharing aviation assets with other agencies to cut costs, and he uses other state planes or helicopters for time-sensitive trips, Harder said.
“His belief is we need to be as efficient with our resources as possible,” Harder said.
Private air travel without the King Air does take an hour or two longer because the remaining planes are smaller in size and engine. But Stitt balances the costs of a commercial air ticket versus the gasoline costs that come with flying privately, she said.
For long-distance flights, Harder said it is sometimes faster and more cost-efficient to fly commercially.
And in addition to selling the governor’s plane, the state also off-loaded the King Air previously owned by the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics, said Sarah Stewart, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety.
Two civilian positions were not refilled after pilots retired this year, she said. The attrition saved the state about $120,000 a year.
DPS also returned four Vietnam-era Bell helicopters to the federal government for repurposing.
“We no longer have the aircraft, so we are saving on parts, maintenance and operational costs,” Stewart said in an email. “We are able to fulfill our law enforcement missions with a state-owned helicopter.”
But in a January opinion piece for the Oklahoma Policy Institute, former House Speaker Steve Lewis noted that Stitt isn’t the first to try to operate without a gubernatorial jet. Gov. David Walters sold his in 1993.
Three years later, Republican Gov. Frank Keating bought a new one.
“The state airplane is low-hanging fruit for a new governor who wants to show he’s frugal with taxpayer money,” he wrote. “Most Oklahomans don’t have access to a private airplane and probably feel their public servants in Oklahoma City can live without it, too. But I’ll bet if Gov. Stitt waited a year to make that decision, he might not make the same choice.”
Lewis, who could not be reached for comment, said that Stitt and Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell will be busy.
“If they are going to sell Oklahoma as they want to, they may need the flexibility of frequently available air transportation,” he said.
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at email@example.com.