Sale of Alberta taxpayer-funded aircraft ‘rash decision’: source

EDMONTON – Premier Jim Prentice made a “rash decisionâ€� to scrap Alberta’s taxpayer-funded fleet of four aircraft without properly considering the financial repercussions or the toll on staff, a government official says.

The decision to scrap the controversial fleet was touted by Prentice as the first one made by his new cabinet the day he was sworn in as premier last month.

While the sale is expected to be complete in four months, the province hasn’t yet determined how it will get out of the 10-year lease signed in the fall of 2013 for the hangar at the Edmonton International Airport housing the fleet. The government was unable Friday to say how much it could cost to break the lease early.

Employees in the government’s Air Transportation Service, which operates the $9.3-million-per-year fleet of aircraft, responded to news of the sale with “shock,� said one government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The Journal rarely grants anonymity, but has done so in this case because the source has a legitimate fear of loss of livelihood.

The decision to sell the fleet has some in the department feeling like “they’re being punished for (politicians’) transgressions,� the source said.

The fleet came under heavy scrutiny this year following revelations of its misuse by former premier Alison Redford. An auditor general’s investigation found Redford derived a personal benefit from the planes, which she used to attend multiple Progressive Conservative party events.

Staff in the department had “lots of questions,� the source said, describing news of the sale as a “rash decision within the first hours of (Prentice’s) first day.�

The news was especially surprising because air service staff had finished moving the last offices into the new hangar just days before Prentice announced the sale, the source said.

“This is going to cost taxpayers,� the source said.

The government is “looking at a number of options� to get out of the lease early, but “no decisions have been made,� said Gerald Kastendieck, a spokesman for the finance department, which oversees the fleet.

Kastendieck said in an email it is “premature� to say how much the lease is worth, because there are “a number of variable costs.� He had no estimates for how much it could cost to break the lease.

Two sources separately told the Journal the government kept the air service department in the dark about the decision to sell the fleet of three Beechcraft King Airs and one Dash-8 plane.

Kastendieck confirmed Friday that staff in the air service department learned about the sale on the morning of Sept. 16 — the same day Prentice made the announcement. Senior government officials have had followup meetings since then, Kastendieck added.

After announcing the sale last month, Prentice said staff in the air service department will be treated in a “careful and humane� way.

“There’s going to be some hardship associated with disposing of the assets and closing the airline,� Prentice told the Journal this week. “We’re trying to be compassionate about that. A number of people have taken stress leave, and so we’re just working our way through the details.�

The department consists of 27 employees, but only six — four airplane mechanics and two administrative personnel — are members of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees.

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