Taoiseach signs off on ministers' state jet requests
TAOISEACH Brian Cowen must weigh up ministers' requests to use the expensive government jets on a case-by-case basis and sign off on each venture abroad.
Under strict rules governing the use of the Gulfstream and Learjet, ministers must first seek permission from the Taoiseach's office and outline the purpose and details of their trips.
But it remains unclear as to whether Mr Cowen is aware -- at the time of clearing each trip -- that a minister might propose on landing or departing from the airport nearest their home.
Rather than depart and land at the Air Corps' landing base at Baldonnel, the short detours to airports closer to ministers' constituencies are boosting the taxpayers' bill by as much as €2,000 each time.
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.
Defence Minister Tony Killeen last night insisted that use of the government jets is "carefully controlled" and often used for detours when meetings have run late into the night or ministers' schedules are tight.
Dropping a minister off at the nearest airport is "easily done" but comes at "considerable cost", Mr Killeen said.
Ministers are increasingly using commercial flights to meet their commitments abroad and turning less and less to the government jets, he added.
But Fine Gael's Lucinda Creighton claimed the whole system surrounding government jet usage was "lax" and detours were not simply down to "exceptional circumstances".
"It would appear that for certain ministers, it's almost one in every two trips -- if not even more frequent that that," she said. "I think they do need to tighten up on procedures."
There is a duplication of costs and services when ministerial cars are driving by road and ministers are flying on the government jet to an airport where they are then picked up by their garda driver, Ms Creighton said.
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.
The jets were used 266 times in 2005, compared to just 126 outings in 2009.
"So there's been a halving of the number of uses of the jet so people at government level are doing their best to use commercial flights where possible. But there are lots of instances where that is not possible," Mr Killeen said.
European Council meetings in Brussels or Luxembourg, for example, could drag on late and past the hours when commercial flights operated, he said.
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.