The Penn State Transparency Tracker is an ongoing effort by Spotlight PA to document and share the ways in which the university is, and is not, being transparent with the public. Due to its special “state-related” designation, Penn State is not subject to open records laws beyond the disclosure of basic financial information.
While some major universities have private planes, publicly funded universities are typically required to disclose information about how those aircrafts are used and how much they cost. Penn State is not legally required to provide this level of transparency given its special status as a state-related university.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration and university officials, Penn State operates a Cessna 525A business jet manufactured in 2013, as well as a 1998 turboprop plane.
Given the university's budget shortfall, hiring freeze, and recent tuition increase, Spotlight PA tracked one of the planes between Sept. 20 and Oct. 21 by running its tail number (N517PD) through the tracking app FlightAware.
The jet logged 44 individual flights during that time period, including an Oct. 3 flight to Harrisburg and back, as well as three separate trips to and from Erie in 48 hours. (See the full list of dates and destinations here.)
Curious about who was using the plane and why, Spotlight PA provided Penn State with a list of the flights and the following questions:
1. For each of the 44 flights, who was aboard the plane and what was the university business related to each trip?
2. How much did each trip cost? Or, if it is easier, what is the general cost to the university to operate the plane for a flight, considering the cost of fuel, employee salaries, etc.?
3. What is the university’s policy for when to use the private plane for travel as opposed to commercial flights, chartered flights, or driving?
4. Football coach James Franklin’s current contract stipulates he can use a private aircraft for personal use for “up to 55 hours per calendar year.” Is the private aircraft the university’s jet (N517PD)? Is the “55 hours” of time calculated by time in air, time the plane is away from State College, or another metric?
Penn State responded in an email:
“Like many universities, Penn State owns two (2) aircraft as it is not uncommon for major research universities with a statewide, national and international profile to have a need for this type of transportation,” Lisa Powers, senior director of university public relations, wrote. “This service is provided to Penn State’s chief administrators with the intent that it be used for business purposes. Dr. Bendapudi, as well as Coach Franklin and a small number of other University personnel, are permitted to use a stated number of hours for personal use of University planes as part of their contracts. In each case, personal use is subject to the availability of the plane and is considered a taxable benefit.
“Having its own aircraft enables senior University employees to fulfill their responsibilities, recognizing the unique geographic dispersion of Penn State (24 campuses, and an office in each of the state’s 67 counties). The aircraft also support alumni relations — with the largest network of any university and located throughout the U.S. — and critically important fundraising goals; other University business/governance needs, such as strategic planning across campuses, trips to Washington, DC, and the state’s capitol, and trips related to research endeavors and acquisition of grants and contracts. Senior officials in Intercollegiate Athletics, which is self-funded, may also use the planes for recruiting and athletics-related purposes.”
“Without going through each individual flight log, we cannot tell you who may have been on the plane for each of those 44 flights you list. The University’s aircraft usage records are audited annually to ensure full compliance with University policies.”
Seeking clarity, Spotlight PA followed up with these questions:
1. What is the registration number for Penn State’s other aircraft?
2. You wrote, “Dr. Bendapudi, as well as Coach Franklin and a small number of other University personnel, are permitted to use a stated number of hours for personal use of University planes as part of their contracts.” Can you please provide a list of the Penn State leaders whose contracts allow them to use university planes for personal use? How many hours for personal use are each of them allowed?
Penn State responded in an email:
“N77CV” for the second plane’s tail number. (The turboprop plane logged 17 individual flights during the same time period examined by Spotlight PA, according to data from FlightAware.)
“Penn State has previously publicly provided details of its contractual arrangements with President Bendapudi and Coach Franklin, both of which include provisions relating to the private taxable use of the aircraft,” Powers wrote. “The terms of the University’s agreements with other employees are considered confidential.”
Based on that exchange, here’s what you need to know:
It’s still unclear who is flying on Penn State’s two private planes, what university business is relevant to each flight, how much it costs to operate the aircraft, and who else, besides Bendapudi and Franklin, is permitted to use the university-owned planes for personal use.
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—Wyatt Massey, Penn State investigative reporter