High-flying Merkel under fire over helicopter flight fee discount

German chancellor accused by rival over use of helicopter at ‘knockdown price’

 Angela Merkel: SPD officials have accused her of taking advantage of her position to secure a logistical advantage over challenger Martin Schulz. Photograph:  Jochen Luebke/AFP/Getty Images

Angela Merkel: SPD officials have accused her of taking advantage of her position to secure a logistical advantage over challenger Martin Schulz. Photograph: Jochen Luebke/AFP/Getty Images

 

Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, has come under fire for securing a deep discount on helicopter flights to shuttle her between party political rallies.

A month to election day, Dr Merkel makes on average two appearances an evening, getting around with an air force helicopter. The cost: a €500 flat fee one way for helicopters that normally have a flight cost of almost €19,000 an hour.

Dr Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said the arrangement pre-dated the German leader’s term in office and allowed her to fly back to Berlin or elsewhere in the case of a crisis, he said, and reflected the “unusual working situation of a chancellor, who is always on duty”.

While Mr Seibert declined to comment on whether the arrangement was appropriate, Dr Merkel’s Social Democratic (SPD) challenger, Martin Schulz, accused the chancellor of mixing party and official business.

Securing helicopter flights at a “knockdown price” showed how “aloof” the chancellor had become in office, said Mr Schulz, who is struggling to close a 15-point lead with Dr Merkel’s party in polls.

SPD officials accused the German leader of taking advantage of her position to secure a logistical advantage over her challenger, saying its leaders had never used the air force to taxi them to party political events.

Hard lesson

Ex-SPD chancellor Gerhard Schröder learned the hard way about the high cost of flying high in public office in Germany. Shortly after he took office in 1998 he brought his wife Doris with him on an official trip on the government jet. As protocol did not require her attendance, Ms Schröder was later sent a bill for several thousand euro. After that, she flew commercial, even if that meant arriving at events long after him.

German rules allow a chancellor to fly herself and her advisers for €500 one way per person with the air force. But the Cougar helicopter regularly used by Dr Merkel to get around the country costs €18,754 an hour to fly. With about four hours’ flying time per campaigning day, Der Spiegel magazine estimated the cost would amount to €75,000 – excluding the advisers who accompany her. Using a private jet from Lufthansa is even more expensive, at a cost of almost €31,000 per hour.

In the 2013 election campaign, the magazine revealed, the CDU leader used the air force helicopter 51 times but paid only an average of €1,770 a go – less than a tenth of the the hourly cost of flying.

Dr Merkel denied she was aloof, saying: “I swore an oath to serve the people of this country.”