Prestwick Airport (United States Military Payments)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 10 September 2019.

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Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

2. To ask the Scottish Government whether it can confirm how much Prestwick airport has received from the US military for its operations. (S5T-01760)

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

Cabinet secretary, your card is not in the console, so your microphone is not on. [


.] Do not look at me—I am not in charge of microphones.

There it is—it has come on. Off you go.

Photo of Michael Matheson Michael Matheson Scottish National Party

Glasgow Prestwick airport operates at arm’s length from the Scottish Government. Information on individual revenue streams is available in the annual accounts, which are available online and are laid in Parliament. To protect the commercial interests of the business, information on revenue is not broken down by individual customer in published accounts.

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.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

It seems that we will have to wait for the American inquiry to find out the actual figures. However, can the cabinet secretary confirm reports that the income stream is the largest single income stream that Prestwick relies on? If so—if he knows that—does he really think that it makes Prestwick airport a viable economic proposition?

Photo of Michael Matheson Michael Matheson Scottish National Party

The member will recognise the important role that Prestwick airport plays for the Ayrshire economy and for the aviation industry that is clustered around the airport, which is part of the reason why the Scottish Government stepped in to purchase it at the time. For historical reasons, the airport has for many decades—since the

1930s, I think—been utilised by the military for stopovers and for refuelling. That was the case when it was in the private sector and it remains the case when it is in the public sector.

There has been increasing growth in the work that Glasgow Prestwick airport undertakes and growth in the revenue that it receives from refuelling and rest-overs, and that is a reflection of the proactive work that the management team has been undertaking in order to reduce the airport’s losses and make it more commercially viable.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

When does the cabinet secretary believe that we will receive back any of the £40 million of loans of taxpayers’ money that the Government has so far given to Prestwick airport, considering that it has still not made a profit in more than a decade?

Photo of Michael Matheson Michael Matheson Scottish National Party

If the Scottish Government had not provided financial assistance to the airport, the likelihood is that it would have closed, and the hundreds of jobs that are directly associated with it and the more than 1,000 associated jobs next to the airport would have been put in jeopardy. With the actions that we have taken, we have seen Chevron operate a new base from the airport and, alongside that, we have seen Ryanair introduce its overhaul and maintenance facility at Prestwick, providing hundreds of highly skilled jobs.

The member will be aware that we advertised back in June for parties interested in purchasing Prestwick. That process is being taken forward. Any final decisions on the future of Prestwick will be dependent on the bids that are received for the airport, and any actions that we take will be in the best interests of the Scottish taxpayer.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I have three members wanting to ask questions. It is an important subject, but I would like short questions, please. I call Colin Smyth, to be followed by Patrick Harvie and Brian Whittle.

Photo of Colin Smyth Colin Smyth Labour

The sale documents for Prestwick suggested that a preferred bidder would be selected by 6 September and a sale completed by 4 October. Can the cabinet secretary say whether any bids have been received for Prestwick airport? Has a preferred bidder been selected? Is 4 October still a realistic date? Does he think that the revelations on the heavy reliance on income from the American military are likely to impact on the sale?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

That was multiple questions, but it was cleverly done.

Photo of Michael Matheson Michael Matheson Scottish National Party

Good progress has been made. At the present time, the management team is assessing the bids that it has received. I will not go into any more detail in relation to the bids—given their commercially sensitive nature, it would be inappropriate for me to do so. 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.

Colin Smyth will be aware that the use of Prestwick airport for military operations is a long-standing arrangement. Anyone who is interested in purchasing Prestwick will be aware of its history as a long-standing base that is used for rest breaks and refuelling military aircraft.

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

The relationship between Prestwick and the US military is indeed long standing, and so is the concern about that relationship, including complicity with extraordinary rendition and active military missions, which the Scottish Government has said that it opposes.

Is it not now clear that we also risk having Scotland’s good international name dragged into a corruption allegation against a far-right US President? We cannot afford that reputational risk. Should we not now at least suspend the relationship with the US military until the congressional investigation has concluded?

Photo of Michael Matheson Michael Matheson Scottish National Party

Those matters have been explored in the chamber before, and Patrick Harvie has made known his views on the use of Prestwick airport for military refuelling and for rest breaks and stopovers. I do not see the benefit of rehearsing the issues again.

In relation to his specific point about ending the relationship to allow any congressional investigation to take place, it is entirely a matter for Congress and the US authorities to conduct any investigation that they think appropriate. As I have already outlined, the arrangement that Prestwick airport has in place is to arrange accommodation as and when requested, and there are 13 different hotels in the local area that the airport uses to provide such a facility when necessary.

Photo of Brian Whittle Brian Whittle Conservative

Prestwick airport has always had unique qualities, including its long runway and, believe it or not, its weather—it is very rarely fogged in. As a five-year-old, I watched Concorde’s inaugural training flights there and, when running along the beach, I have seen F-18s refuelling on their way to the Gulf.

What is the Scottish Government doing in its negotiations to ensure that the strategic uniqueness of Prestwick airport is maintained by the potential new owners?

Photo of Michael Matheson Michael Matheson Scottish National Party

Brian Whittle will be aware that the airport operates at arm’s length from the Scottish Government, to make sure that we comply with European state aid rules. Therefore, the Scottish Government is not directly involved in any contractual discussions that relate to the airport itself.

The very fact that we stepped in to purchase the airport—recognising its strategic importance, both as an airfield and as an aviation facility—and that we continue to support it in looking to diversify the business, is a reflection of the value that we see that it has, not only to the Ayrshire economy but to the national economy of Scotland as a whole.

Brian Whittle may also want to reflect on the details that were set out in the eligibility questionnaire for interested parties that was associated with the advertising of the airport, which set out very clearly to anyone who is bidding for the airport that we expect it to be maintained as an active airfield and that the progress that has been made in recent years by the management team at the airport is built on.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

That concludes topical question time. We will have a short pause while members on the front bench take their places.