From the Atlanta Journal & Constitution:
CDC rarely uses costly leased jets
By By ALISON YOUNG
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 05/28/07
For nearly $7 million a year, taxpayers are leasing three private jets for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to use in case of emergency. But they’re rarely used, according to records and interviews.
CDC officials say the jets are critical to their mission, giving the Atlanta-based agency the ability to mobilize disease fighters across the country or around the globe at any time of the day or night.
In the past year, the three jets have been used for a combined total of nine emergency flights. Even so, CDC officials say they need all of them and their pilots on call 24 hours a day.
“We are constantly looking at questions around cost and efficiency,” said CDC spokesman Tom Skinner. “If there are more cost-efficient ways to accomplish this vitally important mission, we’ll definitely explore those.”
For nearly a year The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has sought access under the federal Freedom of Information Act to internal CDC memos and other documents that would show how the agency justified leasing three jets and what other options it explored. The agency says it’s still processing the newspaper’s June 20, 2006, requests.
Last June the AJC reported that one luxury jet, a Gulfstream III, leased by the CDC, was barnstorming the country to promote the new Medicare drug plan. Even though Congress had authorized the jet for use in emergencies, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt was regularly using it to attend news conferences and meetings. HHS is the CDC’s parent agency.
But since Leavitt’s jet-setting came under scrutiny by Congress and drew national publicity, the plane has mostly sat idle at a Cartersville airport, flight records show. Leavitt hasn’t taken any trips on it since last June.
Since then, it has flown so rarely and not at all for the CDC since November that its machinery was at risk from a lack of use, said Dent Thompson, vice president of Phoenix Air Group of Cartersville, which leases the aircraft to the CDC.
Phoenix Air charges the agency $3 million a year, under a competitively bid contract, to lease the jet and have it constantly at the ready. When the CDC uses it, it pays an additional $3,000 per flight hour.
The CDC leases two additional jets, another Gulfstream III and a smaller Gulfstream II, from Flightworks in Kennesaw for a combined cost of $3.8 million a year, according to records and spokesman Skinner. This contract also was competitively bid.
That contract covers use of the jets for 180 flight hours, after which the CDC would pay $2,286 for each additional flight hour.
These Flightworks jets are assigned to carry CDC staff who work with the Strategic National Stockpile of medicines and equipment though they are too small to carry the prepackaged supplies that would be distributed in a major disaster. In an emergency, the CDC would use a commercial courier company to rush medicine and equipment by air or truck to the scene within 12 hours. Skinner said there are no planes on standby for the prepackaged cargo.
Two stockpile Gulfstream jets are needed to be able to transport CDC staff to two simultaneous events, Skinner said.
Here’s how CDC has used its three leased jets since June 1, 2006:
The Phoenix Air Gulfstream III “emergency jet” has responded to four emergencies with five round trips:
Transported doses of Prussian Blue, a compound used to remove radioactive materials from victims’ bodies, in response to a laboratory accident in Puerto Rico.
Picked up and transported medical samples in two separate cases of suspected human rabies to determine whether the victims needed treatment.
Shuttled equipment and staff in two round trips to Panama City, Panama, to help solve a deadly case of medicines tainted with poison.
The two Flightworks jets that have been used for a combined total of two emergencies involving four round-trip flights:
A jet made three round trips carrying vaccinia immune globulin to treat a 2-year-old Indiana boy who suffered a life-threatening viral infection contracted from the smallpox vaccination his military father received before going to Iraq. Skinner said that the stockpiled medicine is such a precious commodity that the agency only took one dose per trip. When the child needed more, each additional flight was taken.
A jet transported anthrax immune globulin from the stockpile to New York where there had been a lab accident.
The jets have also taken 23 flights as part of emergency response exercises, which generally involved simulated deployment of stockpile medicines, Skinner said.
Skinner said the families whose lives were saved by the CDC’s quick action with the jets know their value.
A taxpayer watchdog group said the number of jets CDC has on call bears closer scrutiny.
“The necessity of having a backup aircraft was greater when they had the secretary flying around, which he shouldn’t have been doing in the first place,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense in Washington. “Certainly if it becomes a big enough issue, the military … is going to be available for transporting the CDC around,” Ellis said.
Jeff Levi, executive director of the Trust for America’s Health, also questioned “whether having three planes set aside is the appropriate model.” But he acknowledged that “having the capacity to move people quickly is certainly critical for the CDC.”
The CDC has leased the two Flightworks jets for at least six years. The agency began leasing the third jet in January 2004 after the agency ran into problems getting a military or private aircraft to evacuate an ill scientist from Asia during the SARS outbreak.
To reach staff writer Alison Young, call 404-526-7372.