The House Oversight and Reform Committee in the US Congress is currently investigating US Defence Department payments and patronage at the state-owned airport and nearby Trump Turnberry, owned by US president Donald Trump.
As reported last week by The Scotsman, multiple senior sources familiar with the airport’s business allege it is waiving service fees for inbound US Armed Forces aircraft at a cost to taxpayers of “seven figures" in order to bolster traffic and safeguard its commercial relationship with the US Defence Department.
Humza Yousaf, the justice minister, was warned last year about the allegations surrounding the South Ayrshire airport, which has received loans totalling £38.4m from Scottish ministers and was put up for sale earlier this year.
Asked at Holyrood yesterday by Mike Rumbles, the Scottish Liberal Democrats MSP, to disclose the amount of the alleged waivers, Mr Matheson declined to address the question and said that the loss making airport was run at arms length from the government on a commercial basis. He said Prestwick decided on “specific commercial deals” without any involvement from ministers.
Mr Matheson did not address the timing issue, and said that Mr Rumble’s suggestion the government was hiding behind “state aid rules” was “frankly nonsense.”
He added: “In order to make sure that we comply with state aid regulations and law in this area, ministers and government can not be involved in the commercial decisions that are made by Prestwick.”
Patrick Harvie MSP, co-leader of the Scottish Greens said he found the government’s “nothing to see here attitude rather disturbing” and asked if it was not offensive for a Scottish publicly owned asset “to be effectively subsidising the military operations of a dangerous far right regime.”
Mr Matheson replied: “It doesn’t provide any subsidy. It operates on a commercial basis.”
The airport has a lucrative refuelling deal with the US Defence Logistics Agency, a Virginia-based body which forms part of the US Defence Department. It has generated revenue of nearly £13.4m for Prestwick between January 2017 and June this year.
The preliminary findings of an internal inquiry by the US Air Force show a significant upsurge in US military flights at the troubled hub. Its crews made 517 stopovers at Prestwick between January 2017 and August this year, including 428 overnight stays, according to the inquiry.
Separately, the House committee has received records from the Pentagon showing it has spent at least £147,000 at Mr Trump's South Ayrshire hotel between August 2017 and July this year - the equivalent, it says, of more than 650 rooms, or "more than one room every night for more than one and a half years."