How does the government get around?
The cost of Government ministers’ travel, whether by road, rail, air or sea has long been a matter of interest and comment amongst British taxpayers, but this week’s suggestion by Simon Calder of the Independent that Liz Truss’ flight to Australia (and back) cost the taxpayer £500,000 will have raised more than a few eyebrows.
In the past government ministers have relied upon a mixture of scheduled and chartered flights for air travel round the world and indeed, the UK, and have also had access to smaller aircraft of the Queen’s Flight (more formally No 32 (The Royal) Squadron RAF). Since 2015, however, the government has been looking at maintaining its own fleet of aircraft, in a manner of speaking.
Bagging an upgrade
In 2015 David Cameron arranged a £10m refit of one of the RAF’s A330 multi-role tanker transporter aircraft, claiming that this would save £775,000 a year. Whether it achieved this objective is far from clear, but in 2018, on a trip to South Africa, the then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told reporters that the aircraft was “hardly ever available” and in a “drab” livery. He also suggested that if there was a way of arranging a dedicated plane that wasn’t “exorbitantly expensive”, it would be a good idea to get one to promote Britain abroad.
You will imagine the collective sharp intake of breath when it was announced by this government in early 2020 – under the leadership of the very same Boris Johnson – that the aircraft that was hardly ever available had somehow become unexpectedly available to have a “UK plc” livery applied at a cost of £900,000, rendering it somewhat useless for clandestine military work. Since then, it has continued to be largely unavailable and spends most of its airborne time in its previous role flying round in circles above our coastal waters on refuelling exercises. One suspects that this has something to do with the fact that it’s a bit big to land comfortably at many provincial airports, and the RAF would rather not have its operational fleet on display for every Tom, Dick and Harry to gawp at.
If there was anything at all to be commended about this plan, it was that the aircraft was already under a lease contract and did not therefore incur additional lease costs.
Upgrading the upgrade
In early 2021 the government acquired a second aircraft in “UK plc” livery. The original aircraft didn’t get a lot of use in its “UK plc” role so it’s not entirely clear why an additional aircraft was required. Unless perhaps the original was, indeed, hardly every available, a bit too big to operate comfortably on domestic flights, and a trifle too sensitive to left hanging round provincial airfields.
This time, the aircraft was an Airbus A321neo-LR, registration G-XATW, on lease from Titan Airways via Corporate Travel Management (North) Ltd, an existing supplier whose contract could be amended, circumventing the need for a competitive tender process. The contract is worth a maximum of £75 million over five years and gives the government exclusive use of the aircraft, with an expected usage of 50 hours a month!
It was this little beast that flew Liz Truss to Australia this month, via Dubai and Kuala Lumpur.
Adding up the cost
So, how do we establish the cost? Well, the contract is for a maximum of £75 million over 5 years, for 50 hours flying a month. On that basis, it could be argued that the trip to Australia used up more or less a month’s allocation of flying time, and so cost 1/12th of the £15 million a year. However, we don’t know whether the terms of the lease include fuel, staff, and catering(!) costs, in which case the true price could rise further.
Alternatively, we could divide the annual cost by 365 and look at the daily rate of about £41,000 per day. For the six days the aircraft was in use this would account for £246,600, leaving us to find an explanation for the remaining £250,000 or so. This sounds quite a lot for fuel, staff and catering, even allowing for Liz’s love of an extravagant lunch!
Alternatively, since £75 million is the maximum contract value, presumably based on a full 600 flying hours a year, we could surmise that there are two elements to it; a fixed retainer to keep the plane on exclusive standby 24 hours per day/7 days per week/365 days per year and a separate fee for flying time. Depending on how (or if) the fixed element of the lease is included in the £500,000 figure, we could be looking at between £5,000 and £10,000 per flying hour.
Whichever way you look at it, whether it cost £500,000 or £1.25 million to send Liz Truss to Australia, spending £75 million over five years or £25,000 per flying hour to keep a brand new commercial airliner idle for 93% of the time is simply ludicrous.
That the taxpayer has no idea how the costs are incurred is a disgrace.
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