09/16/2011 06:16 EDT | Updated 11/16/2011 05:12 EST

Private jet use must be reimbursed, Harper says

While Canada's top general is being criticized over his use of government jets, Prime Minister Stephen Harper says any officials who use the jets for personal reasons should write a cheque to Ottawa.

Harper was asked about media reports that Gen. Walt Natynczyk, chief of the defence staff, has taken the government's Challenger jets to events including hockey and football games, and to join his family on a cruise starting in St. Maarten, a Caribbean island.

He said he and his cabinet ministers have cut back on the use of the VIP aircraft.

The RCMP won't allow him to fly commercially for security reasons, he said, so if he travels for holidays or to take in concerts and hockey games, he cuts a cheque to the federal government for the cost of a commercial airline ticket.

"When government aircraft are used, as certainly I do on some occasions, and occasionally others [do too], when they are used for personal or private travel, we expect that travel at commercial rates to be reimbursed to taxpayers. That’s what I do and I think that’s protocol that should be respected across government," Harper said in Saskatoon.

National Defence figures put the cost of operating the Challenger at $10,806 per flying hour in 2011/2012, much more than the cost of most commercial flights. It was $10,105 in 2009/2010.

Harper's spokesman says the prime minister wasn't passing judgement on the nature of Natynczyk's flights.

"I don't even know if officials use them for personal use," Andrew MacDougall said.

Natynczyk's jet trips 'used for work'

A spokesman for Natynczyk says he makes every effort to use commercial flights whenever possible, where they’re available and where the travel schedule permits.

"[The Challenger is] used for work and to allow him to remain in contact and in command and control of the Canadian Forces," said Lt.-Col. Norbert Cyr.

In the case of the flight to St. Maarten, Cyr said, Natynczyk had to catch up with his family on their holiday because he stayed in Canada to attend a 2010 repatriation ceremony for four soldiers and a journalist killed in Afghanistan. He flew on the Challenger to meet his family to get on a cruise.

Natynczyk is also frequently invited to professional hockey and football games, Cyr said, to represent the Canadian Forces so they can be honoured.

"It’s not a case of him sitting in a corporate booth watching a hockey game. That’s not what he does," Cyr said.

"He is working the whole time that he is there. While he is there, he will be meeting with families, with families of the fallen, of the ill and injured. He will be meeting with community leaders."

Cyr says the $10,806 per hour cost of the Challenger is inflated, since it includes extra costs like the pilots' salaries. He notes they would be paid their annual salary whether or not they were flying, and pegged the actual flying cost at $2,630.

The reports are based on documents released under federal access to information laws.

NDP defence critic Jack Harris said he's not sure all those sport-related trips aren't a little extravagant.

"I mean, it's nice to have the chief of the defence staff drop a puck at a hockey game, but you know, if that has to be done at the expense of having a private jet travel with you, well then, it's clearly extravagant and it clearly shouldn't happen."

Liberal MP John McCallum said he doesn't have a problem with Natynczyk's travel, but said that in this economic climate, the government could cut back on the use of its jets.