Saturday, December 17, 2011

Australia: Taxpayers pay for ghost flights

Stephen Smith has been flying solo aboard special-purpose air force VIP jets at a cost of more than $120,000.

This inludes a 30-seater Boeing 737.

In some cases, the RAAF planes fly empty to collect the Defence Minister or return as an empty "ghost flight".

Department of Defence documents obtained by the Sunday Mail show Mr Smith took five flights as the only passenger between January and July this year.

The special-purpose flights documents reveal taxpayers spent nearly $780,000 in six months on flying empty air force VIP aircraft to collect politicians.

The RAAF "ghost flights" were ordered by Government and Opposition MPs to fly empty between cities including Perth, Brisbane and Canberra, despite the availability of commercial flights.

The fleet includes two 737 Boeing jets and three Challenger 604s.

The 737 is crewed by up to three flight attendants and two pilots and features full food and beverage service.

The nine-seater Challenger has up to two flight attendants and two pilots.

Mr Smith authorised himself to fly as the lone passenger from Brisbane to Perth on January 12 in a 30-seater Boeing 737 VIP jet.

The flight from Brisbane, where Mr Smith had been visiting the floods, lasted 4.6 hours and cost $15,088. Mr Smith said through a spokeswoman that there was "no viable commercial alternative" to taking the VIP jet.

The following day, the 737 flew empty to Canberra at a cost of $12,136. On March 14, the documents show an empty nine-seater Challenger jet signed off by Mr Smith flew 4.5 hours from Canberra to Perth at a cost of $14,760.

Mr Smith flew solo from Perth to Canberra for Cabinet aboard the jet the following day at a cost of $10,824.

On April 3, the jet was again summoned to Perth from Canberra where it flew empty except for its crew for 4.1 hours at a cost of $13,448.

Mr Smith boarded the plane in Perth on April 4 before travelling solo back to Canberra for Cabinet on a 3.6 hour flight, costing $11,808.

The jet was again enlisted on May 1 to fly empty from Canberra to Perth to collect Mr Smith, who flew solo back to Canberra, again for Cabinet, the following day at a total cost of $27,224.

On June 17, Mr Smith flew alone from Coolangatta to Perth on the nine-seat Challenger jet at a cost of $17,384. He had been in Queensland to attend the funeral of Sapper Rowan Robinson, killed in Afghanistan on June 6.

The total bill for Mr Smith's solo flying comes to $122,672, and his total VIP bill is $389,845.

For each of the flights, Mr Smith's spokeswoman said: "There was no viable commercial alternative. Mr Smith did not request the aircraft to fly empty (to collect him)".

She said the RAAF's 34 Squadron made the ultimate decisions about when jets flew empty. "As 34 Squadron is based in Canberra, at times aircraft need to be pre-positioned in other locations to pick up passengers. On these occasions aircraft can transit without passengers," she said.

Labor's Warren Snowdon was the greatest user of the empty "ghost" flights, costing taxpayers $78,392 to collect him from his remote Northern Territory electorate, while Treasurer Wayne Swan spent $75,440. Opposition leadership team Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop cost taxpayers $90,528.

Mr Abbott ordered the jet to collect him on empty flights worth $51,496, and deputy leader Julie Bishop was responsible for a total of $39,032 in empty flights.

The VIP flights, provided by the RAAF, cost Australia a total of $4.7 million in the first half of 2011, including the Prime Minister's tally of $921,565 and the Governor-General's bill of $750,794, including ghost flights. Mr Abbott's overall flight bill was $266,694.

Other solo flyers were Labor's Senator Kim Carr, who took a $2296 flight alone, and Veterans Affairs Minister Mr Snowdon, who took flights worth $38,704.

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