‘Absolutely scandalous’: John Finnie slams Transport Secretary for refusing to rule-out sale of Prestwick Airport to US military

Ben Wray

US military use of Scottish Government-owned Prestwick Airport has tripled since 2015

  • Transport Secretary Michael Matheson confirmed that the largest part of Prestwick Airport’s income stream comes from the US military
  • US airforce has ordered a world-wide review of overnight accommodation after it was revealed that air crew using Prestwick Airport had stayed at Trump’s Turnberry resort
  • Congressional investigation currently ongoing into links between US military expenditure and Trump’s private commercial interests
  • CIA ‘extraordinary rendition’ flights have used Prestwick Airport as a stop-over point, with a criminal investigation ongoing into whether Scots Law has been broken
  • Prestwick Airport currently up for sale, after being brought into public ownership by the Scottish Government in 2013

SCOTTISH GREENS Transport spokesperson John Finnie MSP has described Transport Secretary Michael Matheson’s unwillingness to rule out selling public-owned Prestwick Airport to the US military at a Scottish Parliament committee today [11 September] as “absolutely scandalous”.

On Monday, Politico reported that the US airforce had ordered a world-wide review of overnight accommodation after it was revealed that air crew had stayed at US President Donald Trump’s Turnberry resort in Ayrshire. US military stopovers at Prestwick Airport in Ayrshire have tripled since 2015. 

“The frequency of the stops and overnight stays has increased steadily each year, from 95 stops and 40 overnights in 2015; 145 and 75 in 2016; 180 and 116 in 2017; 257 and 208 in 2018; and 259 stops and 220 overnights through August 2019,” Politico journalists Bryan Bender and Natasha Bertrand stated.

Speaking at the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, Matheson was asked by Scottish Lib Dem MSP Mike Rumbles if he is aware that the largest single income stream for the airport is the US military. Matheson replied: “Yes.”

The Scottish Government took the airport into public ownership in 2013, but says it runs Prestwick “at arms-length” and is currently seeking to sell the facility to the private sector. 

READ MORE: ‘Come clean about Prestwick’s role’: Nicola Sturgeon challenged on possible airport involvement in Syria strikes

Asked by Finnie if he would “rule out” selling Prestwick Airport or any part of the Airport to the US military, Matheson replied: “We are in the middle of a process just now, where the management team at Prestwick Airport have advertised the Airport as being for sale. What I’m not going to do, is I’m not going to entertain speculation about who if anybody will be purchasing the airport, as it could infringe upon the integrity of that process. 

“I don’t want to be evasive and I’m not deliberately trying to be evasive, I’m trying to protect the procurement process that the management team at Prestwick are undertaking at the present time so I’m not going to enter into any speculation about the purchase or purchaser of the Airport.”

Commenting after the committee hearing, Finnie said: “The Scottish Government has an obligation to uphold international human rights law and there is considerable concern that it has failed to do so in the past at airports it owns including Prestwick, Wick and Inverness. 

“We know that Prestwick Airport has facilitated active US military missions and extraordinary rendition flights, I am told the Lord Advocate is still investigating the latter, and that the US Military is its largest customer. 

“The Cabinet Secretary’s failure to rule out selling the airport to the US military is absolutely scandalous and leaves open the possibility that such human rights violations could continue unhindered in future.” 

READ MORE: FMQs: Patrick Harvie demands full disclosure of US military operations at Prestwick airport

In April, the US Congress House Oversight Committee began an investigation into whether increased military expenditure had benefited Trump’s private commercial interests in relation to Trump Turnberry and whether there is a conflict of interest. 

Following the revelation, Trump responded on Twitter: “I know nothing about an Air Force plane landing at an airport (which I do not own and have nothing to do with) near Turnberry Resort (which I do own) in Scotland, and filling up with fuel, with the crew staying overnight at Turnberry (they have good taste!). NOTHING TO DO WITH ME”.

In 2012, the Daily Record reported that CIA “extraordinary rendition” flights, where terror suspects are moved to US detention centres around the world and are known to have been tortured, had landed at Prestwick Airport, leading to question marks over whether the US state had committed illegal acts under Scots Law. In February last year, the Lord Advocate stated that Police Scotland were still investigating the matter.

Answering questions in the Holyrood chamber on Tuesday, Matheson said that he would not suspend the airport’s commercial relationship with the US military while the Congressional investigation was ongoing, after being asked to do so by Scottish Greens co-leader Patrick Harvie MSP.

READ MORE: Opinion split on performance of Scotland’s public sector Prestwick airport

On the link between the airport, the US military and Turnberry, Matheson said: “In relation to recent media reports, it is important to make clear that Prestwick, like all other airports that provide fixed-base operations, arranges overnight accommodation for air crew when it is asked to do so. It uses a list of 13 hotels, some of which pay Prestwick commission. Turnberry is generally booked only if other hotels are unavailable or if customers specifically request it. 

“There is no commercial relationship between Prestwick and Turnberry. Prestwick does not benefit from commission or in any other way from booking Turnberry, and customers settle their own accounts directly with the hotel.”

Asked about the sale documents for the airport which were drawn up in June and stated that a preferred bidder would be identified by 6 September and a sale completed by 4 October, Matheson replied: “The management team at Prestwick has advised me that it is making good progress and it intends to continue to work to the timescales as best it can. However, there is always a need to take into account any unforeseen matters that may arise during consideration of such issues.”

Picture courtesy of Mark Harkin

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