Revealed: Taxpayers’ £53,000 bill for US military flights at Scottish Government-owned airport

The Ministry of Defence is picking up the fees for US military traffic at Prestwick Airport. Picture: John Devlin
The Ministry of Defence is picking up the fees for US military traffic at Prestwick Airport. Picture: John Devlin
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Taxpayers have paid at least £53,000 to cover fees for US military aircraft landing at Glasgow Prestwick Airport since Donald Trump became president, The Scotsman can reveal.

The struggling Scottish Government-owned airport has sent invoices for scores of US armed forces flights to the US embassy in London. The bills are then being paid in full by the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

The majority of the payments for landing, navigation, and parking fees were made last July, the month in which Mr Trump and his vast entourage touched down at Prestwick ahead of a two day stay at his nearby Turnberry resort.

The invoices indicate there were at least 35 US military flights at Prestwick that month, with taxpayers - via the MoD - picking up fees worth a total of £40,166.

Ross Greer MSP, the Scottiah Greens’ external affairs spokesman, described the MoD’s payments as a “sweetheart deal,” and accused both the Scottish and UK governments of “enabling the military misadventures” of Mr Trump’s “increasingly unstable and dangerous government.”

While the MoD said it has paid £53,000 to cover the fees for US military flights at Prestwick between 2017 and 2019, it is understood the total cost to the public purse is considerably higher than that figure.

The invoices, released to The Scotsman under freedom of information legislation, contain no details of flights prior to July last year, and none between August 2018 and this February.

In total, they reference just 73 flights. That number appears conservative compared to the amount of aviation turbine fuel orders placed with the airport’s parent company, Glasgow Prestwick Airport Limited, by the US Defence Logistics Agency, a wing of the US Defence Department.

Procurement records show it placed at least 1,093 refuelling orders with Prestwick between October 2017 and September this year. Cumulatively, they are worth in excess of £15.6m to the beleaguered airport, according to data compiled by the US federal government.

The MoD said it had not yet received, or processed, all the invoices dating back to the start of Mr Trump’s time in office, meaning it could not provide a “finalised figure.”

It added that there was a “limited level of documentation” with regards to how it paid for the US military’s fees, which it said was “very much due to the arrangement being ‘business as usual’.”

The Scotsman revealed in October how multiple sources familiar with Prestwick’s operations alleged the airport was waiving so-called service fees for US military aircraft as part of a practice designed to increase traffic and safeguard its lucrative commercial relationship with the US Defence Department.

The airport has repeatedly refused to respond to a series of questions about the allegations, and it has so far refused to disclose information it holds, claiming its commercial interests are not outweighed by the public interest in disclosing it. The Scotsman has appealed to the Scottish Information Commissioner.

The separate arrangement between the US military and the MoD pre-dates those allegations by some distance.

Under it, the cost of landing, parking and navigation fees for US armed forces aircraft are paid for, in full, by the MoD.

Despite the fact it is little known, even in defence circles, the system dates back to 1967. It sees UK civilian airports invoice the US government via their embassy, with the invoice ultimately passed to - and picked up by - the MoD for payment.

The invoices obtained by The Scotsman were prepared by Prestwick and issued to the US Defence Attaché Office at the US embassy in London’s Grosvenor Square.

The types of aircraft and the flight numbers have been redacted, and there is no information about the purpose of the US flights travelling through Prestwick.

A similar arrangement is in place in the US for UK military aircraft using US civilian airports. However, it is unclear which country benefits the most from a deal presented as reciprocal.

Following a freedom of information request by The Scotsman, the MoD has refused to release details about specific flights.

It claims that to do so would, or would be likely to prejudice relations between the UK and US, and allow potential aggressors or terrorist organisations to identify patterns of air traffic movement at the South Ayrshire hub.

Mr Greer said: “It’s disgraceful enough that a publicly-owned airport is effectively subsidising Donald Trump’s military activities but now it turns out that the Ministry of Defense is using taxpayer cash to subsidise them even further.”

“We now know that both the Scottish Government, who own the airport, and the UK Government, through the MoD, are enabling the military misadventures of an increasingly unstable and dangerous government.”

He added: “It certainly sounds like the real figure for MoD payments of US fees is far higher than the stated amount but they’ve simply not bothered keeping track because this sweetheart deal has been in operation for so long.”

It comes as transport secretary Michael Matheson confirmed this week that an undisclosed preferred bidder had been chosen to buy the heavily-indebted airport.

The identity of the bidder has not been disclosed, but as revealed by The Scotsman yesterday, it is understood to be AGS Airports, which owns hubs at Glasgow and Aberdeen.

It is unclear whether the £40m in Scottish Government loans provided to the airport will be repaid as part of the sale process.