Ministers 'using government jets like taxis' for local trips
GOVERNMENT jets are being used to collect and drop ministers at locations convenient to their homes -- at additional cost to the taxpayer.
The short detours to airports such as Knock, Cork, Shannon and Derry are boosting the bill by as much as €2,000 each time.
Every time a minister is collected or dropped off at his local airport, the Gulfstream or Learjet must first depart from and eventually return to the Air Corps' base in Baldonnel.
Direct flying costs per hour for the Gulfstream are €4,050 and €1,270 for the Learjet.
The flying time to and from the regional airports is about 30 minutes, adding up to €2,000 or €600 each time.
Ministers who have chauffeur-driven cars often board at Baldonnel and are picked up later at an airport closer to home after their garda driver has made the journey by road.
According to documents from the Department of Defence, obtained by the Irish Independent, the Gulfstream jet has landed in Cork eight times this year to facilitate Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin and once for Enterprise Minister Batt O'Keeffe.
The Learjet has landed four times in Cork to facilitate Mr Martin and twice in Derry for Tanaiste Mary Coughlan.
Ministers often use their local airports when their schedules are tight, when they have personal commitments or when they are arriving back in Ireland late at night.
Transport Minister Noel Dempsey recently sparked outrage when he used a government jet to fly from Dublin to Derry, for a speaking engagement, and on to London, at a cost of €13,000.
This year's use of local airports was similar to last year when the Gulfstream landed six times and the Learjet landed 11 times in Cork with Mr Martin on board.
The Gulfstream landed twice and the Learjet landed four times at Knock with Ms Coughlan on board. Derry and Knock airports are closest to her home in Co Donegal.
Both Mr Martin and Ms Coughlan have had to make frequent trips abroad. The Foreign Affairs Minister is one of the most frequent users of the government aircraft
But ministers' use of the jets for short hops last night drew sharp criticism from opposition parties.
Fine Gael's Lucinda Creighton accused ministers of using them as their own "personal taxi service". She claimed detours to local airports, causing more wear and tear to the aircraft, were "excessive".
The government jets, she said, should be used strictly for foreign travel and not for a "drop in and drop out service".
Ms Creighton added: "It's all part of this pervading culture. These ministers are completely oblivious to the public sentiment out there and are refusing to change their habits."
Labour's Ciaran Lynch claimed that collecting and dropping ministers at local airports was a "continuous practice".
"Surely there are landing fees and airports fees involved each time and it's been borne by the taxpayer," he said.
In the past, former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern would land at Dublin Airport, rather than at Baldonnel -- 20km from his home -- which would require extra landing and take-off costs.
It was revealed yesterday that US customs searched the jet for contraband when Mr Ahern was preparing to fly to Washington for St Patrick's Day in 2008.
Further criticism of ministers has centred on helicopter usage. They have been accused of using government helicopters like a taxi service to ferry them to constituency functions.
Transport Minister Noel Dempsey used them twice last year for events in his native Meath.
Justice Minister Dermot Ahern was picked up in his home town of Dundalk by helicopter, before flying to Letterkenny. Tanaiste Mary Coughlan was collected at a Donegal GAA pitch to travel to the Phoenix Park.
In all, there were 16 such helicopter flights last year, according to records provided by the Department of Defence.
However, there was just one this year as ministers have become more conscious of the public mood and the cutbacks.
Fine Gael's Leo Varadkar claimed that the helicopter trips are often car drives from Dublin, commercial flights often cost less than €100 and trains can ensure a minister avoids traffic and hassle.
"Ministers, particularly the Foreign Affairs Minister, need to use the jet or helicopter from time to time to make meetings in Europe, the US and the Middle-East or the visit the islands," he said.
"However, it seems to me that some ministers are using the helicopters like a taxi service to get them home or to a constituency function. Ministerial air transport is a privilege, not a perk, and we should do what David Cameron has done by requiring ministers to fly on commercial aircraft whenever possible."