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Defence Minister Peter MacKay listens as Public Works Minister Michael Fortier announces the $1.4-billion purchase of 17 C-130J military transport aircraft, the first of which will be delivered in 2010, at a news conference in Ottawa on Jan. 16, 2007.Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press

Defence Minister Peter MacKay outranks almost all his cabinet colleagues when it comes to using federal government executive jets, racking up more than $2.9-million in flights on the Challenger planes in the past four years.

No other Tory politician aside from Stephen Harper has accumulated as much time on the VIP jets since Mr. MacKay took over the defence portfolio in the late summer of 2007. Not former foreign affairs minister Lawrence Cannon or Ottawa's jet-setting Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, who frequently travels abroad for economic meetings.

Records provided by the Department of National Defence show that over four years there were 35 flights arranged for Mr. MacKay that ran nearly 250 hours. None of these went to Afghanistan and, of these 35, 25 were domestic trips inside Canada.

Records show that in 2009 and 2010, Challenger flights arranged for Mr. MacKay logged more hours than any other of the 30-plus ministers who served under Mr. Harper at that time.

In 2008, Mr. MacKay ranked second only to Maxime Bernier, former foreign affairs minister, in terms of hours flown by government jets dispatched to fly him.

Cabinet ministers are encouraged to take commercial flights when at all possible.

The VIP Challenger jets are back in the spotlight after it was revealed that Canada's top soldier, General Walter Natynczyk, used the planes 21 times in recent years to attend Forces-related pro sports events, fundraisers and – in one case – a family holiday in St. Martin.

Total flying hours for planes transporting Mr. MacKay comprised 17 per cent of hours flown by all ministers in 2008, 34 per cent in 2009 and 60 per cent in 2010. As of June, 2011, jets arranged for him made up 32 per cent of all flights by ministers other than Mr. Harper.

These are all flights where logs indicate Mr. MacKay was the "VIP" or the "User requesting aircraft" rather than merely a passenger on a flight arranged by someone else, such as Gen. Natynczyk or the Prime Minister's Office.

Per-hour flight expense costs provided by the military indicate the 35 flights cost Ottawa more than $2.9-million.

The Canadian Forces adds, however, that these estimates include fixed expenses that account for 75 per cent of the bill.

Jay Paxton, a spokesman for Mr. MacKay, released a statement saying: "In approximately 50 per cent of the total Challenger flights Minister MacKay has taken, he has taken these flights to attend the repatriation of fallen military personnel."

Records show, however, that of the 35 flights Mr. MacKay's office requested since September, 2007, only nine were to attend to return of soldiers' remains to Canada.

Mr. Paxton said Mr. MacKay only used Challengers where commercial travel was "not feasible" and where the jets could help cut down the cost of conducting government business.

He said overall ministerial travel on the jets is down more than 80 per cent from the final years of the former Liberal government.

Mr. Harper, who is compelled to avoid commercial flights for security reasons, is the biggest political passenger on the Challenger jets. Even so, there are some months since he was appointed Defence Minister that Mr. MacKay's flights logged more hours than the Prime Minister.

Opposition MPs from Atlantic Canada questioned how frequently Mr. MacKay used Challengers.

Prince Edward Island Liberal MP Wayne Easter said he would have thought the foreign minister of the day would be the most frequent user of Challenger jets.

"Here you have the Minister of Defence using the Challenger as if it was their personal taxi," Mr. Easter said.

"It seems as if he feels he's been given the keys to the kingdom."

NDP defence critic Jack Harris, from Newfoundland, said he doesn't see why Mr. MacKay so frequently turned to Challengers.

"Clearly these are not matters that require an emergency priority use of a government aircraft."

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