Saturday, March 24, 2012

Opposition attacks PCs over $450,000 bill to fly empty aircraft: Governing Toriees have logged more than 200 so-called deadheads flights a year, Treasury Board manifests show

EDMONTON — The Alberta government continues to spend more than $450,000 annually flying empty aircraft between Calgary and Edmonton, outraging opposition critics who decry it as a scandalous waste of money.

For the past three years, the governing Conservatives have logged more than 200 so-called deadheads flights a year, often to pick up the lieutenant-governor to fly him to events in Edmonton and other communities, according to passenger flight manifests published on the Alberta Treasury Board website.

Last year, 116 of the 247 deadheads were flights between Edmonton and Calgary that cost taxpayers about $3,900 per one-way trip. Government planes also made numerous flights with no passengers from Edmonton to Fort McMurray, Grande Prairie, Lethbridge and Medicine Hat as well as to other Canadian cities, but those additional costs are unknown.

Premier Alison Redford said the taxpayer dollars that fund government flights is money well spent.

“There are a lot of places in this province — this very big province — that it’s not possible to get to on commercial flights and it’d important for us — not just for politicians but also for government employees, for people that are part of some of our government boards (and) youth secretariats — to be able to travel around the province and connect with each other,” Redford said. “I believe we have four planes and I know they are put to very good use. . . . That’s an investment in what it means to build strong communities across the province so we’re not separate from each other.”

Treasury Board spokesman Stuart Elson said the province’s four-aircraft fleet flew empty on 247 flights in the fiscal year up to March 23. He said in the two previous years, government aircraft flew empty 220 and 214 times respectively.

“Efforts are made to reduce the number of flights with no passengers by co-ordinating those schedules,” he said.

The province operates a 36-passenger Dash 8 and three smaller Beechcraft King Air planes at a cost of $4.5 million annually, plus another $2.8 million for aircraft parts and debt payments on two new aircraft, he said.

The Dash 8 makes a regular weekly run between Calgary and Edmonton to take Treasury Board officials to Calgary for meetings, but the seven and nine-passenger King Airs can fly into smaller communities, Elson said.

“They enable officials to travel to even the most remote areas of the province,” he said. “Fewer than 10 per cent of Alberta communities are served by commercial airlines.”

Flight manifests show the government aircraft flew to 30 communities last year, including small places like Conklin, Slave Lake, Cardston, Taber, Bonnyville, Fairview, High Level, Rainbow Lake, Wabasca and Dawson Creek.

The most frequent flyer last year was Lt.-Gov. Donald Ethell who made 127 flights, but former Premier Ed Stelmach flew 95 times and Alison Redford made 26 trips in the three moths after she was sworn in as his successor.

Elson said the cost of a King Air flight between Calgary and Edmonton is about $3,900. That’s many times the rate of a commercial flight, which costs less than $500 for a round trip.

New Democrat Leader Brian Mason said there might be a need for one or two smaller aircraft to reach remote communities, but there’s no need for a Dash 8 or a $24-million fleet of aircraft.

“I think there’s plenty of evidence that the government fleet is an expensive luxury that is not used efficiently,” he said. “We could reduce the number of deadheads if the cabinet ministers got off their high horses and took a commercial flight now and again. I don’t think Alberta needs its own air force.”

Most provincial governments use commercial aircraft or charter planes to take government officials and politicians to remote communities.

“I don’t think we should be flying between Edmonton and Calgary at all,” said Wildrose MLA Rob Anderson. “It’s a three-hour drive. It’s just not worth the expense to save an hour. It sure isn’t worth $4,000.”

He said officials could save taxpayers money by taking the Red Arrow express bus between Calgary and Edmonton.

“I’m not saying we don’t need one government plane to get to far-off places quickly, but between Edmonton and Calgary there is no excuse,” he said.

Liberal MLA Hugh MacDonald said the government should use private- sector aircraft. “I think certainly we need to be more careful about the use of Klein Air and reduce the number of deadhead flights,” he added. “It’s convenient for the politicians, but not for taxpayers.”

There’s been criticism of the waste of money flying empty planes since 1995 when news reports pegged the cost at $100,000. The number of deadheads has dropped from 333 in 2006 and 272 in 2007, but the fleet still racks up at least four or five a week.

The fleet has been in operation since 1985 and for decades the flight logs were kept confidential.

The provincial auditor general endorsed the government fleet in 2005 as long as the flight logs were made public so taxpayers could see who flew where and when.

Fred Dunn said he could see the need for a private service that enabled government officials more privacy on flights.

“What we need to do is make it more efficient,” he said at the time.

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