Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Is this how we should treat our heroes?

The Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Walt Natynczyk has been flying on government aircraft to attend private functions, including a military flight to join family members on a St. Maarten vacation. We know this thanks to CTV Ottawa Bureau Chief Robert Fife, and his scoop is causing quite a buzz in newspapers across the land.

CTV News, which is caught in a squeeze between the giant CBC News Network and the pesky new Sun News Network and is trying very hard to remain relevant, needs something of their own to bang on about. So, for this week, a trumped-up scandal over Gen. Natynczyk’s use of government jets willCC-144_Challenger_-_VIP_Transport have to do.

The Royal Canadian Air Force operates a small fleet of dedicated executive jets—similar to the one pictured—in two squadrons. This is the Challenger fleet all the fuss is about. Four jets, I think, of the fleet are configured as VIP transport and are used by Canada’s monarch, governor general, other members of the Royal Family, prime minister, other senior members of the government of Canada, and other dignitaries. The jets, I’ve heard, are outfitted to the standard of a nice mobile home, i.e., not luxuriously.

This seems reasonable to me. We are the second largest country in the world, and we are a wealthy, modern, industrialized nation with leaders who have responsibilities and obligations worldwide.

For accounting purposes, a cost per hour of a Challenger jet’s flying time is calculated at about $10,000. It’s important—and crucial to understanding this issue—to be aware that this hourly rate includes amortization of the purchase cost of the jets, use of their hangers and salaries, etc., of their crews, i.e., all costs that have/will be expended regardless of whether or not the jets leave the ground.

Now, if a journalist is looking for a high-impact story, and cares little about fairness, this is the cost per flying hour he’d use. And that’s the cost per hour Robert Fife used to report on Gen. Natynczyk’s January, 2010 flight to St. Maarten, which works out to about $93,000. The fact that about $67,800 (74%) of that cost would have to be borne by taxpayers even if the jet had stayed on the ground seems lost on Fife—or perhaps been ignored by him because it wouldn’t have made as good a story.

Another salient point is how the RCAF operates it’s VIP fleet and manages its aircrew. Sound practice dictates that pilots maintain their proficiency by flying a certain number of hours whether or no they have passengers on board. This is to maintain the certification of the aircraft and their pilots.

So, anyone on board during those flying hours are, in a real sense, flying for free. And, because Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has so dramatically cut the use of these government aircraft by politicians, the jets would often fly empty, if senior staff like Gen. Natynczyk did not use them.

Here’s a nicely stated recap of Gen. Natynczyk’s flights by Craig McInnis of The Vancouver Sun:

“Many of the flights were to attend sporting events as a representative of the military. Although he may have enjoyed those games, they were still legitimately working trips, even when he took along some of his family.

“The flight to the Caribbean for a family vacation came after he had been delayed by a repatriation ceremony in Kingston for the bodies of four soldiers and Canadian journalist Michelle Lang after they were killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.

“A worthy cause and as his employer, it would be verging on mean for taxpayers to refuse to cover Natynczyk's costs for rejoining his family after his original holiday plans were disrupted by his call to duty.”

According to CTV, since 2008, Gen. Natynczyk incurred more than $1-million in travel costs while flying on government aircraft for what it characterized as “personal business.” According to my calculations, the real out-of-pocket expense would have been more like $260,000 or $87,000 per year, which includes only incremental costs and excludes “anyhow” costs like depreciation.

Given the significant nature of his responsibilities and obligations, is $87,000 really too much for our top soldier to spend in a year on this sort of travel, especially when the plane he used would have flown without a passenger, at least, some of the time? Does the fact that Natynczyk runs the military not give him some latitude, or have we become a nation of envious cheapskates?

I gather from news reports that the prime minister will force the general to reimburse the government for some of his flights at commercial rates. This “looks” better, of course, but is it really fair? We pay out billions of dollars annually to tens of thousands of civil servants and employees at crown corporations across our land at rates far in excess of anything the private sector would consider appropriate. Where’s the CTV News scoop on this excessive burden on taxpayers?

Far too little is ever written about those excesses. But let a senior politician or general take a free ride on a government jet to make his or her job a bit easier, and its “Stop the Presses!” time at CTV News.

Legitimate questions to be asked of our political leaders are: Why is so much of the VIP fleet underused? Shouldn’t we sell some of the jets if there isn’t enough real work for them? Such questions would serve Canadians better than singling out of our top soldier and publicly embracing him so unnecessarily.

In this faux scandal, we have treated one of our genuine heroes and finest citizens shoddily. We should be ashamed of ourselves. Most of us don’t get the opportunity to travel in government jets, so why should our top soldier do so? Is that supposed to be our attitude? How very egalitarian of us—or just pettiness.

While Robert Fife should not be criticized for bringing the issue forward for debate, he should be taken to task by not providing a more through analysis of the Chief of the Defence Staff’s travelling costs, especially since they were pre-authorized or incurred to satisfy the obligations of his position as head of the military.

CTV knew the optics here and chose sensationalism over fair journalism.



© Russell G. Campbell, 2011.
All rights reserved.
The views I express on this blog are my own and do not necessarily represent the views or positions of political parties, institutions or organizations with which I am associated.


  1. Two further points:

    At the time of the incident where the CODS flew to the Caribbean (Dec 2009) and before, Canada was heavily involved in fighting in Afghanistan. Imagine if there were an international incident and the staff at NDHQ couldn't get a hold of him because he was flying on Air Canada? Or he was out of the loop because he couldn't receive or transmit coded information? Sorry CTV, but if anyone should be able to use the Challenger jets, it's Canada's top soldier --especially in a time of war.

    Second, what a nice contrast between Natynczyk and the MPs of the official opposition, several of whom couldn't be expected to delay their vacations during an election. When duty called several NDP MPs dropped the ball. I hope they remember their recent history should they feel compelled to question Natynczyk's use of the Challengers in the House.