Loeffler jet a Georgia campaign trail asset, but also fuel for critics

U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler bought a midsize business jet shortly after Gov. Brian Kemp appointed her to the Senate. It’s helped her travel across Georgia, but critics use it to portray her as out of touch with Georgians. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler bought a midsize business jet shortly after Gov. Brian Kemp appointed her to the Senate. It’s helped her travel across Georgia, but critics use it to portray her as out of touch with Georgians. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

When U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler traveled to a Middle Georgia hot dog shop to meet with local officials, she hopped on her newly purchased private jet for an 18-minute flight. A few hours later, the aircraft took her to Washington, where she touted a federal budget that included new money for Savannah's port.

The luxury jet is an enviable tool on the campaign trail, helping the Republican senator zip from her Buckhead home to Macon campaign stops to votes in Washington in a span of hours as she tries to build her political brand ahead of a November race against several well-financed challengers.

It also fuels critics who are pushing to portray the former financial executive as an out-of-touch multimillionaire who whisks to meetings with Georgia farmers and small-town officials on her private jet.

The plane is a Bombardier CL30, a midsize business jet that typically lists between $7 million for older models and four times that for newer versions. The cabins are big enough to fit at least eight people, and the plane has a range of more than 3,000 nautical miles, making it capable of coast-to-coast travel.

A Bombardier BD-100-1A10 Challenger 300, which is similar to the one recently bought by Kelly Loeffler. 
PHOTO: ERIC SALARD
A Bombardier BD-100-1A10 Challenger 300, which is similar to the one recently bought by Kelly Loeffler. PHOTO: ERIC SALARD

Credit: ERIC SALARD

Credit: ERIC SALARD

Records show the plane is chartered under TVPX Aircraft Solutions, which specializes in a form of "owner trust" that some in the business aviation industry have adopted. Among the benefits of the system, the company says on its website, is offering U.S. clients "anonymity."

Indeed, the plane was listed as "not available for public tracking per request from the owner/operator" on Flight Aware, a commonly used flight-tracking system.

Her office confirmed that Loeffler owns the aircraft when asked by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and that she paid for it out of her pocket. Her aides said it was purchased in December, shortly after she was appointed to the Senate by Gov. Brian Kemp, but they would not say how much Loeffler paid for the aircraft.

Loeffler spokesman Stephen Lawson said the jet helps save public dollars that would otherwise be spent reimbursing her for flights to official duties. He said the senator isn’t reimbursing herself from campaign funds for those flights.

“Yes, like other senators and candidates, Sen. Loeffler has a plane,” Lawson said. “She uses it to best serve Georgians and save taxpayer money in an effort to see as many of her constituents as possible.”

Flight data shows the plane has made several recent trips between the Fulton County Airport and Washington-area airfields. It also showed a short hop to Macon on Feb. 10, where she met with local officials at a Nu-Way Weiners restaurant, and made several other stops before heading to Washington.

Loeffler appears to be the only member of Georgia’s congressional delegation to regularly commute to Washington on a private jet. An AJC review of the 15 other members of Georgia’s delegation revealed that each typically flew to Washington on commercial airliners.

That includes U.S. Sen. David Perdue, a former Fortune 500 chief executive who, during the annual Eggs & Issues breakfast in January, told a crowd of thousands his seat assignment on a Delta Air Lines flight later that morning — and then noted he was in danger of missing it.

‘All you need to know’

Congressional restrictions on air travel were first put in place in 2007 after a corruption scandal involving disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff led to a sweeping ethics overhaul in Washington, but the rules largely involve aircraft owned by private businesses or lobbyists.

Under Senate ethics rules, members are required to pay full market value for flights on private jets unless the aircraft is owned or leased by the senator or an immediate family member. That means Loeffler is allowed to crisscross the nation in her jet as long as she follows ethics guidelines.

Her aides say she is complying with rules set forth by the U.S. Senate and the Federal Election Commission, and that the majority of her travel is to and from Washington. She also occasionally flies coach on commercial flights to Washington, an aide said.

Still, the use of the jet is sure to be a focus of attacks from her rivals, just as it has been in other competitive races.

In 2018, Republicans dubbed Missouri U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill "Air Claire" and trailed the Democrat at campaign events, waving air traffic control wands for using her husband's private plane to travel the state. Her opponent, Republican Josh Hawley, blasted her as "out of touch."

And Democratic presidential candidates, including three sitting U.S. senators, have faced criticism this year for turning to private air travel on the campaign trail even as they promise to curb climate change and connect with low-income voters.

Others have turned their private aircraft into a part of their political stagecraft. President Donald Trump routinely held rallies with his "Trump Force One" in airport hangars during his 2016 campaign, flaunting the giant Boeing 757 at events across battleground states.

Loeffler’s most prominent critic, U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, quickly seized on the jet to paint her as out of step with everyday Georgians.

An aide to Collins, a four-term Republican congressman challenging Loeffler, criticized the senator for touting her purchase of a KIA SUV in January that was manufactured in Georgia even as she flew a pricey private jet to campaign stops.

“Who buys a $30 million jet in secret then posts a picture with their new KIA on Facebook around the same time?” said Dan McLagan, a spokesman for Collins. “That’s all you need to know about Kelly Loeffler.”