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Air travel adds up to sky-high costs

Most people can find a flight between Buffalo and Philadelphia for $200 to $300.

Even less between Buffalo and New York City.

A ticket to Europe usually can be bought for under $1,000.

Then again, most people don't work for the New York Power Authority, whose employees sometimes fly for a lot more money than utility customers would consider reasonable, a Buffalo News investigation found.

Take the authority's trustees, who usually get virtually door-to-door service when travelling to out-of-town meetings.

When then-Chairman Louis P. Ciminelli needed to get back and forth between Buffalo and White Plains, just north of New York City, one day in April 2004, he flew. He was picked up and delivered on a Power Authority plane, at a cost of $8,162.

Staff sometimes travel for top dollar, as well. Like last year's round-trip flight from Buffalo to Philadelphia, booked for $1,557. Or the numerous flights taken to Europe and Japan that topped $5,000 each.

Authority officials maintain most of their air travel costs are justified and that in recent years -- following a critical audit by the state comptroller in 2000 -- they reined in excessive expenses.

"We've tightened up a great deal," said Vincent C. Vesce, executive vice president of corporate services and administration. "If you were to examine the more-recent practices of the authority you would see a marked change."

An analysis by The Buffalo News, however, found short-distance travel and costly commercial flights through the middle of last year, the end of the period reviewed.

The News, using the state Freedom of Information Law, obtained data on several thousand trips taken on the authority's planes and commercial carriers from January 2004 through June 2006. The authority for years owned two propeller planes until giving one, an eight-seater, to the State Police last spring. It retains a nine-seater, based in White Plains.

The planes are not cheap to operate -- about $1,540 per hour. The authority caught a break with one of the planes when the State Police covered three-quarters of the expense because it shared the plane. The authority pays the entire bill for the remaining plane.

While many flights carry multiple passengers, at a cost cheaper than flying commercially, planes often fly empty, or close to it.

Twenty-nine percent of flights carried no passengers. Most of the flights were made to pick up passengers; in some instances, they were made to maintenance facilities in neighboring states.

Planes carried only one passenger 10 percent of the time. Sometimes, it was the final leg of a multi-city trip; other times not.

The average travel distance of these solo flights was 110 miles -- less than a 2-hour car ride in good traffic. The average cost of these solo flights was $746.

A little more than half of the flights carrying passengers involved three routes: White Plains and Massena, where a large hydropower plant is located; White Plains and Niagara Falls, the site of negotiations between the authority and local officials involving the relicensing of the hydropower plant in Lewiston; and White Plains and Albany.

Authority planes were sometimes also used for much shorter commutes. Eight flights involved the 20-mile trip between Niagara Falls and Buffalo; another 22 flights were taken between Buffalo and Rochester.

Vesce said most of the flights have been cost-effective, either transporting a large number of people for less money than it would cost on commercial air carriers, or commuting to places that are hard to reach via airlines, particularly Massena.

The authority in recent years curtailed use of its planes for short distance travel, Vesce said, particularly between Albany and White Plains.

"We have dramatically limited those kind of flights. We started telling people this is not the best use of our plane, it's not the reason we have it," he said.

At considerable cost, authority planes frequently usher upstate trustees to meetings, which are generally held in White Plains. A sampling of such flights the first half of last year determined costs to shuttle two or three commissioners ranged from $1,134 to $9,394 per day, in part because planes usually had to travel empty for great distances to pick up their first passenger and later return to their home base.

Commissioners were the most common solo passengers.

Ciminelli, who represented Western New York on the authority board from 1995 to the summer of 2005, took 36 solo flights costing $161,065, an average of $746 per flight -- much more costly than commercial flights. His 22 one-way flights to the New York City area often exceeded $2,000.

That's not including the cost of sending the empty plane to fetch him. When those costs are factored in for his round trip between Buffalo and White Plains in April 2004, the operating cost nearly doubled to $8,162.

Ciminelli, as chairman, was entitled to an annual salary of $90,000, which he did not take. He declined to comment.

Spending on commercial flights is also expensive, topping $600,000 in recent years and driven up in part by the purchase of high-priced tickets.

The authority bought 113 tickets that cost over $1,000, including 25 that topped $5,000. The total cost: $381,357 -- a quarter of total spending for 3 percent of the flights.

Most of these flights were abroad, including France, Brazil, the Netherlands, Japan, New Zealand, Poland, South Korea, Italy, Germany, Slovenia and Finland. Much of the travel was to inspect equipment.

The authority also dropped big bucks on domestic travel. Flights between Albany and Atlanta cost up to $1,117; New York and Pittsburgh, $1,115; New York and Montreal, $1,014; and Albany and Charlotte, $935. Flights between Syracuse and New York, and Cleveland and Albany, cost up to $688.

The News obtained data on the average prices paid by air travelers on 13 routes in which the authority appeared to have overpaid. It found average business and individual fares were significantly less than what the authority paid on 10 of the 13 routes. On balance, the fares paid by the authority were 64 percent higher -- $1,710 vs. $1,040.

A fair number of flights, Vesce said, were booked too close to departure to get the lowest fare. Vesce called this the "biggest driver" of high fares.

In addition, employees are allowed to travel in business class for flights of longer than 2,300 miles -- those overseas and to the West Coast. Coach fares, Vesce said, proved to be "penny wise and pound foolish. Our guys were getting over there not prepared to go to work."

-- By James Heaney

News assistant Kelly Boquard contributed to this report.

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