The Australian federal government hired private luxury jets belonging to Crown Melbourne to deliver aid, including COVID-19 vaccinations, to two Pacific destinations earlier this year at a cost of almost $600,000 (US$428,000).
The flights were confirmed by Crown and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), though Foreign Minister Marise Payne declined to comment.
The Bombardier Global Express XRS jets, a model described as “one of Australia’s most luxurious ways to travel”, were used to deliver AstraZeneca vaccines and returning citizens to Tuvalu in mid-June and to transport a small medical response team to Fiji in early August.
While ideal for VIP travel, the jets have less baggage capacity than a VW Transporter Van, and their use in carrying out aid work has prompted criticism from independent federal MPs Andrew Wilkie and Rex Patrick.
“Frankly, the use of Crown’s private jets for this government work stinks in my opinion,” Wilkie said.
“It’s completely out of step with community expectations and needs further explanation by the federal government.
“The size of those bills seems completely unjustifiable. The government should review any payments it has made to Crown and ask Crown to justify what they have charged.”
RAAF planes were used on a number of occasions to deliver COVID-response aid in the Pacific, but Senator Patrick said the pandemic had led to Defence planes generally being underutilised over the past two years.
He said the flights undertaken using Crown’s jets were a “perfect opportunity” to increase the flying time of Defence planes, especially given how much was invested in them.
“The taxpayer has a right to be angry about this,” Senator Patrick said. “They are paying for Air Force transport aircraft to be sitting on the ground and then paying a second time for expensive private jets to be hired.”
Senator Patrick said that wherever possible, the ADF should be used for aid-related operations.
Flight records from the crowd-sourced aviation website, ADS-B Exchange, show one of Crown’s jets left Melbourne on 16 June, landing in Brisbane. It departed on a 10-hour round trip to Tuvalu the following morning – and then repeated that journey on the 18th, before returning to Melbourne.
A joint press release from Foreign Minister Marise Payne and the Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Zed Seselja, referred to a single flight delivering COVID-19 vaccines to Tuvalu at the time, but a spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs confirmed that two trips were made.
This was the result of aircraft weight and airstrip limitations, they said, although photos online show commercial and military planes, including a U.S Air Force Hercules and an RAAF Spartan, using Funafuti International Airport’s 1524-metre runway.
The unavailability of defence aircraft and the lack of commercial flights may have also been factors in the work being tendered under a standing offer arrangement to a private charter company, which then subcontracted one of Crown’s planes to undertake the work, the spokesperson said.
The trips to Tuvalu cost a total of $379,957 (US$270,584), they said.
Wilkie questioned the cost. “Looking at those bills, you’d think the Crown planes flew to the moon and back, not Tuvalu and back,” he said.
“Why is the Australian government outsourcing our aid programmes to private, profit-driven businesses? And why is that business using Crown’s planes, especially at those prices?”
Six weeks later, more than $215,000 (US$153,123) was spent to hire another of Crown’s fleet, this time to transport nine Australian Medical Assistance Team (AUSMAT) members from Darwin to Fiji, which was recording over 1100 cases of COVID-19 per day and had requested urgent assistance.
A video posted by Australia’s High Commissioner in Fiji shows the AUSMAT members at the Paspaley Group’s Pearl Flight Centre at Darwin Airport, where Crown’s plane can be seen on the tarmac. It had flown from Melbourne to Honolulu three days earlier, and landed in Darwin the night before.
A DFAT spokesperson said no scheduled commercial flights were available to transport the AUSMAT members, and that Crown was subcontracted to undertake the work by another charter company.
However, a Fiji Airways Airbus A350-941 landed in Nadi from Sydney shortly after Crown’s plane arrived in the country, according to data from the Flightstats by Cirium subscription data service.
The carrier also flew that route four times in both the prior and following weeks. The same number of flights also arrived from Auckland in that window, carried out by either Fiji Airways or Air New Zealand.
A senior figure in the aid sector, who was not authorised to speak on the record, described the overall cost to use Crown’s planes as “an amazing amount of money” for a limited amount of work.
He said aid and personnel were always flown by defence planes or commercial airliners, and other aid workers travelling to Fiji from Australia during the pandemic had been able to travel on commercial flights, albeit with some difficulty.
He had never heard of luxury jets being used to carry out aid work, not even as a last resort in a breaking emergency such as the pandemic.
“It’s just a waste of money, especially at this time where the aid budget is so tight.”
“It’s using scarce resources that could be better spent elsewhere.”
A DFAT spokesperson said that in both instances, the most appropriate aircraft options to support the Tuvalu and Fiji tasks were provided through Defence’s Air Transport Standing Offer Panel.
“Australia is committed to providing life-saving COVID-19 vaccines and support to manage COVID-19 outbreaks to our partners across the Pacific,” the spokesperson said.
“During the pandemic, many countries have imposed international border restrictions, and air connectivity across the Pacific has been severely disrupted.
“Where scheduled commercial flights are not available, DFAT works closely with Defence to assess the most effective means of transport of passengers and cargo.
“This may include Defence assets or commercial transport, depending on COVID-19 protocols, cargo and passenger requirements and ADF operational commitments.”
In addition to its aid work, Crown’s planes made around 20 other flights in and out of Australia between mid-March this year and the start of November, when the national border reopened.
Its other destinations included Los Angeles, Honolulu, Tokyo, London via Bangkok, Manila, Phuket, Auckland and Port Moresby, in some cases on multiple occasions.
Crown said its planes were only used in this period by third parties, primarily to repatriate people and to transport skilled workers, in line with government regulations.
It also said its planes had been hired to repatriate supplies.
When asked what kind of supplies its planes would have been hired to transport, a Crown spokesperson said all uses of its planes during the pandemic had been organised through ExecuJet, a luxury charter provider, and it could therefore not provide further details.