Keith Brown today rebuffed continuing criticism of Prestwick Airport’s reliance on foreign military aircraft, describing it as a “legitimate” source of revenue for the lossmaking state-owned hub.
The Scottish Government has been condemned for avoiding scrutiny of the struggling airport’s business with the likes of the US Air Force, amid accusations Prestwick is serving as a “staging post” for frontline operations in Syria and elsewhere.
But Mr Brown, the cabinet secretary for the economy, said any such concerns were a matter for the UK Government.
In an exchange at Holyrood with Ross Greer, the Scottish Greens MSP, Mr Brown stressed that while the number of movements of military aircraft at Prestwick stood at around 9,000 at the turn of the millennium, it has since fallen to around 3,600.
He said: “Any question over questionable military activities in airspace is completely reserved to the UK Government, whether it is aerospace, defence, or security.
“It is the case that this is a legitimate part of the business of the airport.”
But in a statement released afterwards, Mr Greer said: “It’s appalling that Scottish ministers are happy to allow a public asset to support US military operations in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, which have appalling consequences for innocent families on the ground.
“At Westminster we see SNP MPs rightly raising concerns about foreign policy, yet their ministerial colleagues here in Scotland are turning a blind eye because of commercial offerings. It’s shocking hypocrisy and it’s sickening.”
The South Ayrshire airport has been no secret of its dependence on military custom as it seeks to return to profit.
Prestwick generates nearly £1.1m a year in revenue from military air traffic. By contrast, it makes only around £350,000 from general aviation.
It has enjoyed significant growth in revenue from military refuelling in particular, thanks to a contract it secured in October 2016 with the Defence Logistics Agency, the US Department of Defence’s combat logistics support agency.
Despite Mr Brown pointing out that military aircraft movements have fallen since 2000, the most recent annual report of the hub’s parent company, TS Prestwick Holdco Ltd, shows income from military aircraft handling has jumped by £292,000 since 2013/4, a 37 per cent increase, and the fourth successive annual rise.
With growing numbers of military airfields across Europe being closed, officials at the airport are intent on bolstering its complement of military customers. Writing in the report, Andrew Miller, Prestwick’s non-executive chairman, explained: “The group is specifically targeting new military business as a key component of its future development activities.”
He added: “The business development team is heavily focussed on building on and establishing new key relationships with the Ministry of Defence, US Air Force, Royal Canadian Air Force and other air forces worldwide to ensure the airport is firmly at the top of their preferred operational airport lists.”
As revealed by The Scotsman three months ago, US president Donald Trump’s flagship Scottish business was invited by Prestwick officials to lobby a prospective airline amid its attempts to get out of the red and find a private buyer.