Imagine running an airline where only half the seats are sold. You'd go broke, right? Yet that's exactly what the state of Illinois is doing and you're paying for it.
It's called the executive shuttle service--four daily flights between Chicago and Springfield made available to elected state officials and high-ranking state employees. But, amazingly we've found hundreds of instances where the state-owned planes flew with only one or two people aboard at a cost to taxpayers of $3,000 a flight.
It was bright blue skies over Springfield last week as the morning shuttle from Chicago arrived at the Abraham Lincoln Capitol Airport. But, we only saw one passenger get off that plane: an official with a state economic agency.
It's just one of four daily flights between Chicago's Midway Airport and Springfield provided by the Illinois Department of Transportation's Aeronautics Division at a cost to taxpayers of more than $4 million a year according to IDOT's Susan Shea.
"The purpose of the program is to provide effective and efficient travel to legislators, to elected officials and to state employees who have a justifiable business reason to fly," Shea says.
Yet an analysis by FOX 32 and the Better Government Association shows the shuttle service is anything but efficient. We obtained records of over 1,500 flights between Chicago and Springfield starting in January of 2012.
Each flight costs taxpayers about $3,000 to operate yet 9 percent of the time the shuttle flew with just one passenger aboard and 12 percent of all flights had just two passengers.
They fly one of IDOT's four King Air 350's. Even though the turboprop plane seats nine passengers, we found that 47 percent of the time, only four or fewer passengers were on board.
"I think we do a very good job at trying to multi-task and put as many people on the aircraft as possible," Shea says, defending the program.
"If you've got flights that are happening with one or two people on board, those need to stop and IDOT needs to figure out a way to administrate this program where the plane is full most of the time," The Better Government Association's Pat McCraney counters.
Now, here's where it really gets outrageous. We did the math and found that because of all the empty seats, taxpayers are spending about $1,200 round trip for every passenger. Even if all the seats are filled it still costs $660 per passenger.
"We consider our aircraft to be a time machine," Shea explains. "It allows elected officials, state employees, to get from point to point in a time-efficient manner."
But, there are plenty of cheaper alternatives available. We checked commercial fares online and found round trip flights for about $200 next week. And, when we went to the counter at the Springfield Airport, a ticket for the next flight out was still a bargain by comparison at $218.80.
Granted, a three-hour drive to Springfield is nobody's idea of fun. There's not a lot to look at other than corn, cows, combines, barns... and more corn. But it is a whole lot cheaper than flying IDOT. At the legislature's 31-cent-a-mile reimbursement rate, it costs about $150 bucks to drive down and back.
Amtrak sells tickets to state employees for only $40 round trip. Even taking a taxi or a limo from Chicago is less expensive than flying the shuttle.
We showed our findings to Republican State Representative Bill Mitchell of Decatur, who responded with: "amazing. Just amazing. An absolute waste of taxpayer's money."
Every year Mitchell submits a bill to get rid of IDOT's shuttle service and every year it disappears in the Illinois House, with is controlled by speaker Mike Madigan. He lives just a couple miles from the Midway shuttle stop and used the plane 26 times during the period we looked at.
The top political flier: State Senate President John Cullerton with 73 trips. In a statement, Cullerton's spokeswoman defends the program: "The Senate President believes that using scheduled flights is one way for lawmakers to maximize and balance the time split between district duties and Springfield demands."
"I don't think that they're really taking this seriously," Mitchell says. "We're in a crisis, a financial crisis. And we have top state officials getting toted around the state of Illinois like you're the Queen of England or something. It's just mind-boggling."
Speaker Madigan's spokesman, Steve Brown, told FOX 32, "If IDOT wants to make a change, change it. Nobody's standing in their way."
And, what do you know? On Wednesday, we got a call saying that after they'd reviewed our information, IDOT is indeed making a change and will no longer fly the shuttle if there are fewer than four passengers aboard. That step would have eliminated more than 500 flights during the time period we looked at or about 1/3 of the total number of flights.