The Harper government is axing two-thirds of its fleet of Challenger jets, cutting back on the symbolic perk that has gotten so many officials in hot water over the years.
The Defence Department said the decision to get rid of four of the VIP planes will move through the system “as quickly as possible,” with any savings going to “operational needs” at National Defence. The two remaining jets will continue to be used for VIP travel, medical evacuations and other administrative flights.
The Challengers have long been seen as one of the main benefits offered to federal ministers and other senior officials, who can use the planes as personal taxis to faraway destinations while avoiding the inconveniences of commercial flights.
Even the acquisition of two of Ottawa’s six Challengers was at the centre of a political firestorm, as former prime minister Jean Chrétien oversaw the completion of the $100-million purchase just before the end of the 2002 fiscal year, without going to tenders. The other four jets, which are the ones that will be decommissioned, were bought in the early 1980s.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has also come under fire over some of his Challenger flights, including his decision last year to bring his daughter on one of the planes to cheer the Vancouver Canucks at a Stanley Cup game in Boston.
However, a spokesman for Defence Minister Peter MacKay boasted about the reduced use of the Challenger jets by Conservative ministers since the party took officer in 2006.
“We are taking the necessary steps to improve efficiency and effectiveness at National Defence to ensure the best use of taxpayer dollars,” spokesman Jay Paxton said. “Our government has successfully reduced ministerial use of the Challenger by over 80 per cent since we took office.”
The New Democratic Party said the savings from the Challenger cutbacks are “welcomed,” especially after Mr. Harper faced questions over the RCMP’s decision to fly over his limousines to India during a recent trip. Still, NDP MP Matthew Kellway said that the government “has much larger and intractable issues to deal with from a budgetary perspective.”
The Globe and Mail reported last year that Mr. MacKay had racked up more time on the VIP jets than any other Conservative politician, aside from Mr. Harper, since he became Defence Minister in the summer of 2007. In particular, Mr. MacKay was attacked by the opposition last year for getting on a Challenger flight after a search-and-rescue helicopter had picked him up at a fishing lodge.
The former chief of the defence staff, Walt Natynczyk, has also had to defend his use of the planes after making 21 flights to attend Forces-related pro sports events, fundraisers and – in one case – a family holiday in St. Martin.
The jets cost more than $10,000 an hour to operate, but the figure includes fixed expenses that are incurred whether the planes leave the tarmac or not. The incremental costs, such as fuel, spare parts and maintenance, add up to $3,285 an hour.
Mr. Natynczyk defended the use of the planes by the Canadian Forces last year, saying that military-operated jets offer advantages that can’t be matched by commercial flights.
“In many cases, military aircraft offer security, scheduling, command and control, and flexibility advantages that cannot be matched at any price,” he wrote. “Whether doing the nation’s business abroad, or trying to squeeze additional productive time out of a tight schedule, being able to move senior leaders and their support staff quickly and efficiently to their destination is one of the reasons we operate command and liaison fleets such as the Challenger,” he said.
According to DND, the Challengers have a maximum speed of Mach 0.83, and a range of almost 6,000 kilometres. The jets are operated by a crew of four, and can carry nine passengers.