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Government owned airport’s £9m payday from US military

Government owned airport’s £9m payday from US military – from The Scotsman

The publicly-owned Prestwick Airport has received more than £9m from Donald Trump’s administration in the past two years to refuel hundreds of US Armed Forces aircraft, an investigation by The Scotsman can reveal.

The loss making state-owned hub, which was put up for sale earlier this month by the Scottish Government, has received close to 650 orders since October 2017 for jet fuel.

Contract details drawn up by a US Defence Department agency indicate the deal could ultimately secure Prestwick’s parent company an additional £8m, while a new contract is set to extend the arrangement until autumn 2024.

The flurry of transactions – the equivalent of more than 35 a month – has reignited criticism of the SNP government for fostering close economic ties with the US military while publicly admonishing the president’s character and his foreign policies.

Patrick Harvie, co-convener of the Scottish Greens, said the “sheer scale” of US military activity at the airport uncovered by The Scotsman was “breathtaking,” while Scottish Labour’s Jackie Baillie accused the SNP of “breathtaking hypocrisy” and urged it to “come clean” about the extent of the US involvement at Prestwick.

However, Prestwick has stressed that details of its commercial contracts were confidential, while the Scottish Government said the airport is operated at arms-length and on a commercial basis.

While the South Ayrshire airport has made no secret of its efforts to woo foreign military customers in recent years to counter plummeting revenue from commercial flights, neither it nor the Scottish Government have ever disclosed the extent of its windfall from the US government.

But a slew of US federal government procurement records and defence agency contracts analysed by The Scotsman show that between 3 October 2017 and 23 March this year, Prestwick has received more than £9.02m.

In all, some 64 pages of US government procurement records detail 644 separate orders placed for aviation turbine fuel by the energy division of the US Defence Logistics Agency (DLA), a Virginia-based body which manages the global supply chain for the US Army, Navy, and Air Force.

The lucrative deal with the US military is now the beleaguered airport’s single biggest revenue stream by some considerable distance. In the first three months of 2019, for instance, the DLA authorised payments to Prestwick worth £1.4m. That is more than twice the revenue generated via passenger services in the entirety of 2017/18.

No details are available of the aircraft that were refuelled or the nature of their engagement, but the payments spiked in October and November last year, a period which coincided with intensive US airstrikes in Afghanistan and Somalia, according to data collated by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

The airport’s parent company, Glasgow Prestwick Airport Limited, received £1.7m and £1.4m respectively in those months.

One source familiar with Prestwick’s military movements said that while US military equipment is transferred via RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk, Prestwick predominantly serves as a conduit for special forces and private military contractors.

While Prestwick’s contract with the DLA is set to expire in September this year, the total payments under the deal could reach as much as £16.91m, according to the DLA contract.

The Scotsman has learned that the airport is set to secure a new, longer contract with the agency. The extended deal – known as a EUCOM Into-Plane contract – will come into force on 1 October and lasts until 30 September 2024.

Its value has yet to be determined, but it is understood the new deal would allow for the supply of around 12.4 million gallons of aviation fuel, around three million more than the existing arrangement.

Key figures within the SNP, including First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, are among the most high-profile critics in Britain of Mr Trump and his administration’s foreign policy.

The SNP’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, last year criticised Prime Minister Theresa May for appearing “beholden” to the US president instead of parliament over the UK’s role in Syrian air strikes, and accused her government of having “danced to the tune of President Trump.”

During Mr Trump’s state visit to the UK earlier this month, Stewart McDonald, the party’s defence spokesman, urged Ms May to press the US government for an unredacted Senate intelligence report into the use of Scottish airports, including Prestwick, for CIA rendition flights, so as to determine “if crimes were committed.”

The magnitude of the US military payments detailed by The Scotsman has drawn the ire of Patrick Harvie MSP, co-convener of the Scottish Greens, and another vocal detractor of Mr Trump.

“We have known that the government-owned Prestwick Airport has been supporting the US military for some time, but the sheer scale of activity uncovered by The Scotsman is breathtaking,” he said.

“Not only is Prestwick being used for active missions, the US military is its biggest customer. When the airport itself won’t comment on contracts, it is beholden on ministers to answer the big questions.”

He added: “The Scottish Government must take responsibility for the use of our public asset in this way.

“The Scottish Greens want an independent Scotland to forge a new, progressive and peaceful relationship with the world, not prop up Donald Trump’s militaristic agenda. It’s time for the SNP to step up to the plate on this if they’re serious about forging a new path for Scotland.”

The US Air Force (USAF) has previously confirmed Prestwick – the first mainland airport between the USA and Europe on the so-called Great Circle Route – has been used to support frontline US military operations.

Documents released to The Guardian newspaper last year under freedom of information legislation show Hercules C130 cargo planes are among those aircraft to have participated in ”active duty missions” from the airport, with Stratotanker air-to-air refuelling aircraft also checking in at Prestwick.

The Boeing VC-25 Air Force One used by Mr Trump also touched down at the airport last July alongside a USAF Boeing C-32 during the 73-year-old’s two day visit to his loss making Turnberry hotel and golf resort. Two vast USAF Lockheed C-5 Galaxy military transport aircraft also flew in to Prestwick in support of the visit.

USAF aircraft to use the airport in recent months include McDonnell Douglas KC-10 Extender aerial refueling tankers, and Boeing C-17 Globemaster military transports.

Jackie Baillie, the Scottish Labour MSP for Dumbarton and a prominent critic of the government’s stewardship of Prestwick, said: “The SNP government is guilty of the most breathtaking hypocrisy. On the one hand they criticise Trump and his foreign policies and on the other Keith Brown runs to America touting for business for Prestwick from the US Air Force.

“The US Air Force has confirmed that these aircraft are engaged in ‘active missions’ but the SNP don’t know what these are and seem happy to turn a blind eye in exchange for millions of pounds.

“It’s time for the SNP to come clean about the extent of US involvement and just how much money they have received, which mysteriously doesn’t appear to be recorded anywhere.”

The ties between Mr Trump and the airport have been under scrutiny ever since the 73-year-old took over the Turnberry resort five years ago.

A joint press release issued by the two businesses in November 2014 to coincide with Mr Trump’s visit to Scotland referred to an “official partnership” and a “strategic alliance,” but the relationship has been drastically downplayed ever since Mr Trump embarked on a controversial career in politics.

Even so, the Scotsman revealed in November 2017 how Trump Turnberry was invited by Prestwick lobby a prospective airline amid attempts to return the airport to profit.

Representatives from Mr Trump’s loss making firm were asked to travel with airport and local authority staff to Denmark to “pitch” to the airline, with the Scottish Government was made aware of the arrangement.

The previous February, meanwhile, our sister paper, Scotland on Sunday, obtained a tranche of documents which showed the airport held unminuted discussions over “potential partnership opportunities” and disclosed business development targets with Trump Turnberry.

The struggling airport was bought by the Scottish Government for a nominal fee of £1 in November 2013 to save it from closure, but it has since required a succession of loans totalling nearly £40m to stay in business. Accounts filed with Companies House show its holding company made a loss of £7.6m in the 12 months to March 2018.

The details of the DLA payments are not detailed in the annual reports of Glasgow Prestwick Airport Limited or its parent company, TS Prestwick Holdco Limited.

When the government confirmed earlier this month that Prestwick was formally up for sale, transport secretary Michael Mathieson pointed to the “good progress” that had been made towards increasing its revenue.

But the tender contract advertised on the Public Contracts Scotland procurement site makes no mention of the DLA deal, noting only that the airport “offers a wide range of aviation services including freight, passenger military, specialist executive handling as well as general aviation.”

A spokeswoman for Prestwick Airport said: “We do not disclose any information about our commercial contracts.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Prestwick Airport is operated on a commercial basis and at arm’s length from the Scottish Government, in compliance with European Union state aid rules. Ministers do not intervene in the commercial discussions at the airport.

“The senior management team at the airport has been tasked with all aspects of taking the airport forward, including building on existing revenue streams.

“Prestwick Airport has handled military and private flights since the 1930s and it remains an important part of the airport’s business”.

A spokesman for the DLA said: “DLA Energy has confirmed with Glasgow Prestwick Airport that the Scottish Government is looking to test the market and potentially return the airport to private ownership.

“In the meantime, all indications are that the airport will remain focused on serving DLA Energy customers under the current contract and the follow on contract, tentatively scheduled to be awarded prior to 1 October 2019.”

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