The House Committee on Oversight and Reform is investigating the Air Force for C-17 crews’ use of per diem funds to stay at Trump’s luxury Turnberry resort, about 50 miles outside of Glasgow, Scotland, after stopping for fuel at the nearby Prestwick Airport. Air Force photo by SrA. Megan Munoz.
The Air Force has ordered a global review of its airport- and accommodations-selection processes, though it maintains its mobility crews did nothing wrong, after media reports surfaced that aircrews repeatedly stayed at a property owned by President Donald Trump during stopovers in Scotland.
AMC is reviewing all of its guidance regarding how airmen choose airports and lodging during international travel. “We must be considerate of perceptions of not being good stewards of taxpayer funds that might be created through the appearance of aircrew staying at such locations,” top Air Force spokesman Brig. Gen. Ed Thomas said.
Politico first reported on Sept. 6 that the House Committee on Oversight and Reform is investigating the Air Force for C-17 crews’ use of per diem funds to stay at Trump’s luxury Turnberry resort, about 50 miles outside of Glasgow, Scotland, after stopping for fuel at the nearby Prestwick Airport. In this instance, the Alaska Air National Guard crew stayed at the resort twice, both on the way to and returning from the Middle East.
In a Sept. 8 statement, Thomas said that “while initial reviews indicate that aircrew transiting through Scotland adhered to all guidance and procedures, we understand that US service members lodging at higher-end accommodations, even if within government rates, might be allowable but not advisable.”
The House committee, in a June letter to the Pentagon, raised concerns that the resort and airport were in financial trouble and claimed both are using the US military as a financial lifeline. The Trump Organization and the airport entered into an official partnership in 2014, according to an airport announcement.
According to the letter, the Defense Logistics Agency had 629 separate orders for fuel at Prestwick Airport, totaling about $11 million. The New York Times reported Sept. 9 that records show 917 purchases at the airport worth a total of $17.2 million since October 2017.
Trump denied any involvement in a Sept. 9 statement on Twitter.
The Prestwick airport is a former Royal Air Force installation that was historically used by Air Force aircraft crossing the Atlantic Ocean. USAF use waned as the RAF unit at the base closed in 2013, but has recently resurged. In 2015, USAF aircraft stopped at the base 95 times, according to numbers provided by Thomas.
In 2017, Air Mobility Command issued a directive to flight crews that listed Prestwick as one of the top five recommended stops on standard routes through the area because it offered better weather than a nearby airport in Shannon, Ireland. The Prestwick airport is open 24 hours a day, making it easier to host aircraft coming from the Middle East than other airports that implement “increasingly restrictive operating hours,” Thomas said.
“By considering factors like these to save costs and increase operational efficiencies, Air Operations Center contingency planners have increasingly turned to Prestwick to develop route plans for lower-priority contingency needs such as training, deploy/redeploy, and Guard airlift missions,” Thomas said.
The Flight Crew Information File directive, titled “C-130, KC-10, and KC-135 Standardized Deploy/Redeploy Routing Locations” called on crews to “utilize fuel efficient routing when planning unless AMC operational requirements dictate otherwise,” AMC spokesman Col. Damien Pickart told Air Force Magazine in an email. While the document directly states those three airframes are impacted, other units were directed to note the information as well.
Prestwick was listed as a top-five option for the C-130s and the tankers to refuel at or stay overnight. For C-130s, the other top locations were domestic US bases as well as St. John’s Airport, Newfoundland; Belfast, Ireland; and RAF Mildenhall, England. For tankers, the top five bases were Mildenhall; Spangdahlem AB, Germany; Ramstein AB, Germany; and bases in the US.
Since the beginning of 2015, USAF aircraft stopped at the Scotland airport a total of 936 times, with a total of 659 overnight stays. About 260 stops have occurred so far this year.
In comparison to Prestwick, Belfast hosted USAF aircraft 508 times between 2015 and August 2019, with 380 overnight stays. Like Prestwick, US visits have grown dramatically in Belfast—just 15 visits in 2015 compared to 150 in 2018. Pickart said the Irish airport is similar to Prestwick because it offers 24-hour operations, favorable weather, parking, and more.
While multiple US military installations in western Europe are used for stops, there are several reasons Air Force aircraft may use a civilian airfield. That includes limited operating hours at a base or limitations on how many aircraft can be serviced, Thomas said.
Prestwick also provides a large parking area and has been contracted by the Defense Department for fuel at standardized prices, he said.
“Bottom line, the availability of civil airfields like Prestwick is essential to ensuring that USAF aircraft can sustain the necessary speed and throughput required to accomplish our mission,” Thomas said.
The luxury Turnberry resort is about a 40-minute drive from the airport, with several other lodging options in the area. Thomas said policies tell aircrews to stay at available locations with rates at or under DOD’s maximum allowable per diem rate that are suitable—for example, that have blackout blinds to let them rest during the day, and that are “reasonably close” to the airfield. In some rural areas, housing options can “vary in distance” and include “high-end” options, he said.
“Existing policy is that as long as the location is suitable and within the allowable DOD rate, aircrews may stay at a ‘higher-end’ hotel,” Thomas said.