EDMONTON — The Alberta government’s controversial fleet of airplanes will soon be gone with the wind, Premier Jim Prentice announced Tuesday.
Prentice said the first decision of his new cabinet was to sell the four-plane fleet that had become a public relations millstone around the neck of the Progressive Conservative government.
“Effective immediately, the premier and ministers will be expected to fly commercial as the primary method of transportation,” Prentice told a legislature news conference.
He said the government is now looking to tender a contract to a charter air service.
While it’s important government members have access to remote areas, Prentice said “the ownership of a fleet of aircraft, the operation of a fleet of aircraft, is not necessarily the most appropriate way.”
Other family members will still be allowed on government plane trips but under tight rules.
“They (the flights) are for government business, they are for government employees,” said Prentice. “If a spouse is required because the spouse was invited as part of official business, then the spouse will be permitted.”
The planes had become symbols of waste, excess and entitlement that brought down former PC premier Alison Redford in March.
She quit the top job as public opinion polls plummeted and ahead of a reported caucus and party revolt.
Last month, auditor general Merwan Saher reported that Redford had used the “aura of power” of the premier’s office to take the planes for personal trips for herself, her pre-teen daughter, and her daughter’s friends.
He said Redford’s staff even booked phantom passengers on the planes so that Redford could fly solo.
Government MLAs also used the planes to fly to political events under the guise of official government business.
Saher said the bottom line showed that the fleet cost $3.9 million more than comparable alternatives in 2012.
Alberta’s Air Transportation Service has 13 pilots and support staff operating three Beechcraft King Air planes and a 30-seat Dash 8.
Operating costs have been pegged at about $9.5 million a year.
The move affects 27 union jobs, and Prentice says while he’s not sure what will happen to these employees, they will be treated as “humanely” as possible.
Redford is now out of politics altogether. She quit her job as MLA for Calgary-Elbow ahead of the auditor general’s report.
She has never publicly commented on the controversy except to say “mistakes were made.”
Opposition politicians were quick Tuesday to sarcastically thank Prentice for adopting their policies to sell the fleet.
“It is just too bad the PCs only decide to do the right thing when they find themselves in danger of losing power,” Liberal Leader Raj Sherman said in a news release.
The flights were only one of the spending scandals that led to Redford’s ouster, which led to the party voting in Prentice to replace her.
Prentice and his new cabinet were sworn in Monday.
Redford’s staff, it was revealed after her resignation as premier, had also been building for her a pricey penthouse retreat on top of a government building, modelled after the swank Hay-Adams Hotel in Washington, D.C.
The project was hastily cancelled in January, resulting in a slapdash floor plan of meeting rooms next to showers.
Prentice said Tuesday he can live with that.
“I’m not sure why we’d have a shower next to a meeting room,” he said.
“But if it’s been wired and plumbed for that purpose, then I guess it’s going to stay that way because I don’t intend to spend any public money changing it.”
“I’ve never seen (the penthouse)” he added. “Maybe I never will.”