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Cullen's €8,000 helicopter trip 'logistically necessary'

TAXPAYERS forked out almost €8,000 this week to collect Tourism Minister Martin Cullen from his home in Co Waterford, fly him by Air Corps helicopter to Kerry, and then on to Dublin.

Was it an emergency? Not exactly: Mr Cullen needed to get to the Irish Hotels Federation annual conference, a vital mission which required the services of a three-man Air Corps crew.

The journey by car from Waterford to Killarney is 190km, but apparently it was not an option for Mr Cullen on Monday -- even though he enjoys the luxury of a chauffeur-driven Mercedes.

Instead, he relied on the Air Corps to make the journey, taking an Agusta Westland 139 helicopter from Killarney on Monday. Three minutes into the journey, the door fell off the helicopter while flying at 200ft.

Investigation

The missing door was located yesterday in marshland beside a lake in Killarney National Park as an investigation into the incident continued.

The country may be facing fresh tax deficits but the Department of Transport confirmed that the tab for the 45-minute and 65-minute trips came to over €6,000.

"Minister Cullen and his private secretary travelled from Waterford Airport to Killarney Racecourse and from Farranfore Airport to Baldonnel," a department spokesperson said.

The spokesman said the average total cost per hour of operating the AW 139 came to €3,130. With both trips taken into account, the total came to about €6,200.

As all Air Corps trips originate and end at Baldonnel, this figure rises even further to about €8,000 when the Dublin to Waterford leg, to pick up Mr Cullen, is taken into account.

The minister wasn't due to speak in Co Kerry until 2.30pm, so questions remained last night over the necessity for the hugely expensive flight.

Some members of the public angrily compared Mr Cullen's travel arrangements to the behaviour of the French aristocracy in the light of calls by Taoiseach Brian Cowen for people to economise.

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Officials said he was due back in Dublin for a meeting with Finance Minister Brian Lenihan -- but sources last night suggested Mr Lenihan would happily have cancelled the meeting had he known of the flight bill.

"I am happy to be conversing with the living today," Mr Cullen told the Dail yesterday. A spokesman told the Irish Independent that Mr Cullen had an early morning meeting in Waterford, which meant "no other form of transport logistically would have got the minister to Killarney on time".

"In order to meet as closely as possible his scheduled Dublin appointment, the Air Corps advised that they had a helicopter doing work in Cork and due to fly back to Baldonnel which could be diverted to Farranfore to pick up the minister to bring him back to Baldonnel."

If the door hadn't fallen off over Killarney National Park shortly after take-off from the Malton Hotel, nobody would have known that the helicopter was also being retained to fly Mr Cullen back to Dublin.

Killarney is well served by trains to Dublin; and commercial flights to Dublin are available from Kerry Airport, with fares starting from about €20.

After the first aircraft lost its door, a second Air Corps helicopter was diverted from Cork where it was taking part in a training exercise. It arrived in Kerry and dropped Mr Cullen back to Dublin.

Last week Transport Minister Noel Dempsey travelled in an AW 139 to Limerick, which later dropped him off at a GAA pitch near his home in Co Meath. A witness said: "The local lads joked, 'Here comes Dempsey'. Sure enough, the chopper lands and out jumps Noel Dempsey, like Robert Duvall in 'Apocalypse Now'."


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