LANSING — The company that was hired to fly Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to Florida is not authorized to operate charter flights, a Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman said Monday.
The possible violation of FAA rules by Air Eagle LLC, the Detroit company that owns the plane Whitmer flew on to visit her father in March, adds a new level of controversy to concerns about the flight.
Until now, concerns about the flight related mainly to whether Whitmer was following the travel advice her administration was asking Michiganders to observe, and how Whitmer paid for the flight.
But charter flight operators are subject to more rigorous maintenance, pilot training, insurance, and other requirements than other flight companies.
In a Friday memo that disclosed details about the cost of the controversial flight and how the governor's office says it paid for the flight, Whitmer Chief of Staff JoAnne Huls said Whitmer's officials "made a decision to use a chartered flight for this trip" because of ongoing security concerns.
"The cost to charter the flight was paid for by the Michigan Transition 2019," a nonprofit corporation controlled by the governor, Huls said.
Elizabeth Isham Cory, a spokeswoman for the FAA, said companies that operate charter flights must have a Part 135 certificate issued by the federal agency. Other aircraft companies have a Part 91 certificate, he said.
The Gulfstream G280 Whitmer's office confirmed she flew on "is not on a 135 certificate and Air Eagle does not have a Part 135 certificate," Cory said in an email to the Free Press.
A phone message left with Air Eagle seeking comment was not immediately returned. A text message to a Whitmer spokesman was not immediately returned.
Cory would not immediately say whether the circumstances of the Florida flight would definitely constitute a charter flight.
But Larry Williams, a retired FAA supervisory aviation safety Inspector and owner of the air safety consulting firm Larry Williams and Associates in Tennessee, said the Whitmer flight would definitely be considered a charter.
Aircraft owners can fly themselves and can in some cases fly friends at no charge under a Part 91 certificate, but if they are going to fly others for a fee they require a Part 135 certificate, Williams said.
"It's pretty serious" in terms of potential civil penalties for both the company that owns the aircraft and the pilot, Williams said. The FAA has made cracking down on unauthorized charter flights a priority, he said.
Huls said a nonprofit corporation, Michigan Transition 2019, doing business as Executive Office Account, paid the $27,521 cost of Whitmer's contentious private plane trip to visit her father, her office said Friday.
Whitmer used her personal funds to pay the $855 cost of her seat, calculated based on the comparable cost of a first-class ticket, spokeswoman Tiffany Brown told the Free Press.
Friday's disclosures followed weeks of criticism of Whitmer for refusing to say when she left the state to visit her father, Richard Whitmer, during the coronavirus pandemic, at a time Michigan residents were being cautioned about travel.
The disclosures also follow a Thursday report in the Free Press in which Democratic and Republican communications experts who have worked for public officials were critical of how the governor's office handled the story, saying the lack of transparency extended a one-day story into one that continued for weeks.
The Michigan Republican Party quickly seized on the latest revelation.
"This new bombshell that Whitmer's plane was not authorized to fly is concerning, yet not surprising," said party spokesman Ted Goodman. "For Whitmer, it's always been, rules for thee, but not for me."
Michigan Transition 2019 was incorporated in 2018 under Section 501c4 of the Internal Revenue Code, state records show. Such "social welfare" nonprofit funds are commonly used by state and local officeholders but have been the source of past controversies, notably for former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and for former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, whose NERD (New Energy to Reinvent and Diversify) Fund was the subject of criticism for not disclosing its corporate donors and for paying the salary of a top Snyder aide, Richard Baird.
Michigan Transition 2019 was initially set up to pay expenses related to Whitmer's inauguration but has since been used for other officeholder expenses, such as consulting, records show.
It was not immediately clear why the cost of the plane and Whitmer's $855 contribution were listed as May expenditures and revenues for the fund, rather than being recorded in March, when the plane was hired.
"The flight was paid immediately upon receiving receipt of the cost," said Brown, without providing further explanation.