Canadian taxpayers are doling out millions of dollars a year for a fleet of sleek government executive jets that spend most of the time either flying empty or parked on the tarmac.
Detailed federal flight logs obtained by CBC News show that each of Transport Canada's nine Citation passenger jets spent an average of just over 300 hours in the air all of last year — less than six hours a week.
More than 70 per cent of that time, the seven-passenger luxury planes flew empty.
That means, on average, each of the roughly $5-million jets is actually transporting passengers for only about 90 hours a year, or under two per cent of their possible annual flying time.
Transport Canada pilots apparently have so little demand for their services that they frequently burn up jet fuel flying the planes empty just to maintain the minimum flight-time requirements of their aviation licences.
Derek Fildebrandt of the Canadian Taxpayers' Federation says the government should junk the jets and force its officials to fly on commercial airlines like most people.
"Keeping a few jets for VIP occasions makes sense, but most of these fleets should be mothballed," Fildebrandt said in an interview with CBC News.
"It is the symbolism of it: If the government is going to be cutting back and there is going to be pain for some people, they should at least take away some of the more extreme perks at the top."
In a prepared statement, Transport Canada said the planes often appear to be flying empty because "the pilots are also inspectors."
"This is why the aircraft may not have passengers on an inspection since the inspectors flying the aircraft will also be carrying out the inspection."
A spokesman for Transport Canada says inspectors are rarely involved in crash investigations or other emergencies.
That raises the question: If the inspectors are not in a rush, why are they not travelling to their work on commercial aircraft at a fraction of the cost of flying around on empty government executive jets?
Transport Canada figures suggest the jets cost about $1,900 for every hour they are flown, although private operators peg the price at upwards of $3,000 an hour.
Either way, a simple round-trip on a Citation from Ottawa to Hamilton, for example, costs taxpayers at least $3,500, a lot more than any commercial air service.
Flight logs raise questions
Transport Canada claims its fleet of jets "is mainly used to move inspectors to sites not easily or readily available via commercial means, to conduct inspections."
But the official flight logs for the Citations show a majority of their flights are to the country's metropolitan airports in not-so-remote places such as Ottawa and Montreal.
The logs indicate the government jets have also flown to a number of U.S. cities including Atlantic City, Miami, Denver and New Orleans.
Transport's veritable ghost-fleet of Citations should not be confused with the six Challenger jets operated by National Defence, and have been the target of much controversy.
Those DND jets are used to ferry around the prime minister, other members of cabinet, the Governor General and a lot of military brass who would apparently rather not have to fly commercial.
Like the Transport Canada passenger jets, the DND Challengers are mostly under-utilized, decorating their hangars more than they are flying government poobahs anywhere.
In total, Transport Canada has 27 aircraft — the Citation jets, nine turbo-prop propeller airplanes, six helicopters and three short-take-off planes.
Among the nine Citation jets, six are based in Edmonton, Hamilton and Montreal, while the other three are in Ottawa, Winnipeg and Moncton.
Rare passengers include bureaucrats, ministers
The flight logs show that during the relatively minimal time the jet fleet was carrying anyone last year, the passengers were mostly senior bureaucrats, and occasionally federal cabinet ministers.
CBC News asked Transport Canada to explain how a fleet of jets that spends about 95 per cent of its time parked or flying empty is a prudent use of taxpayers' money.
In a prepared statement, the department stated: "Aircraft must have regular maintenance in order to be operating properly. That is the law."
The department also said inspectors fly the jets to maintain "their aviation qualifications and competency."
In fact, the department says, that's about all they do with the jets in Ottawa.
"This is the reason why we eliminated most inspectors flying in Ottawa and have sold a number of aircraft."
Federal cabinet ministers and their staff have occasionally used the expensive planes.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, for instance, caused a stink last year when he cost taxpayers at least $3,800 for a Citation to fly him from Ottawa to London, Ont., for a political event.
The plane flew back to Ottawa empty.
Flight logs show that, last year, Flaherty also flew three times on Transport Canada's fleet of nine turbo-prop planes the department operates for the benefit of its own staff and occasionally political VIPs.
Other members of the Harper government who have used the jets have been mostly ministers of transport, such as John Baird, Lawrence Cannon and Chuck Strahl.
Costs hard to pin down
It remains a matter of contention exactly how much all this high flying on a wing and a taxpayer is costing.
Documents obtained from Transport Canada under access to information laws show the Citations last year cost taxpayers about $5.3 million.
But that figure does not include a number of expenses such as training, aircraft and administration facilities, security and equipment.
In its written response to CBC News, the department claims: "There is no extra cost associated with the training of inspectors as the simulators are part of the department's capital budget, and the inspectors are hired and paid for by Transport Canada."
The federal auditor general's office has yet to turn its sights on Transport Canada's fleets of aircraft.
But in 2008, then auditor general Sheila Fraser found National Defence was wildly understating the real costs of its Challenger passenger jets.
As for Transport Canada's fleets of turbo-prop aircraft and helicopters, no one seems able to say how much those cost.
CBC News requested the information using criteria established by the auditor general to establish the true costs of DND's Challenger jets.
Transport Canada replied that CBC would have to pay for more than 30 hours of departmental staff research to ascertain those details.
The CBC declined.
A spokesman for Transport Canada says the department put 15 of its aircraft up for sale in 2009, and has sold eight of them.
So far, however, the department is keeping all of its luxury jets.
Greg Weston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org