OTTAWA - The country's top military commander has dismissed a suggestion from the prime minister that he pay back taxpayers for his personal use of government jets.
Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Walter Natynczyk says he uses the air force's Challenger jets as part of his command-and-liaison role and sees no reason the public treasury needs to be reimbursed.
In an interview on CTV's Question Period today, Natynczyk suggested the planes should actually be used more often.
"The problem is the aircraft are not being used enough and so aircraft are flying around empty because we have to maintain the proficiency of the pilots and indeed of the crew," he said.
He blamed government cutbacks on usage of the jets for the wasted flights.
Access-to-information documents suggest Natynczyk has spent more than $1 million flying on the jets since 2008, including a trip to St. Maarten in 2010.
He told CTV that the trip to join his family was given the greenlight by the defence minister.
It came after he'd spent a second Christmas in Afghanistan and then cancelled a personal leave to attend the repatriation ceremonies for four soldiers and a Canadian journalist killed there, he said.
"I'm indebted to the minister for coming back and looking at the business case that the aircraft, again, many of them would have flown empty," he said.
"So in terms of the rates that people are using, they don't apply in this regard."
CTV said Thursday that the Challenger costs $10,105 a flying hour to operate, meaning the trip to St. Maarten and back cost $92,956.
According to 2011-12 public accounts records, the total annual cost per hour of flying the VIP jet is $9,379. That figure includes the operating cost and the long-term, amortized expense of ground infrastructure. The per-hour operating cost is $2,321.
The prime minister said last week that the use of government aircraft for private business is allowed, as long as the treasury is compensated.
"Our government has dramatically cut the use of government aircraft," Harper said during an event in Saskatoon.
"When government aircraft are used, as certainly I do on some occasions, when they are used for personal or private travel, we expect that travel at commercial rates to be reimbursed to the taxpayers. That's what I do and that's protocol I think should be respected across government."
There was no immediate comment from the prime minister's office as to whether they'd compel Natynczyk to pay back the public coffers.
Passenger logs, obtained by CTV News, show Natynczyk and some members of his family flew to Toronto from Ottawa for a Maple Leafs hockey game in appreciation of the military at a cost of $23,231.
Nearly $400,000 was spent going to six NHL games over three years and about $340,000 was spent going to CFL games.
A military spokesman said Friday that says each of those trips fell within the realm of the general's duty and were wedged in between other official business.
On Question Period, Natynczyk argued that in some cases they were more economical than taking a commercial flight even between cities like Toronto and Ottawa.
"In each case, no matter where I go, across the country, anywhere around the world, I and my team work to be the most efficient in the use of the taxpayer's dollar," he said.
Natynczyk characterized the story as an attack.
"I've been very transparent, I've been very ethical throughout my entire 36 years of service and I am today," he said.