Air force-operated flights that transport federal MPs and senators between Western Australia and Canberra are costing taxpayers more than $10,000 per parliamentarian, per flight – five times the price of a business-class ticket on a commercial airline.
The flights, booked and approved by Defence Minister David Johnston, at times carried just three elected officials, according to the six-monthly register of VIP flights.
Finance Minister Mathias Cormann and Julie Bishop have joined Mr Johnston on the so-called "gravy plane" from the west for parliamentary sittings weeks and a cabinet meeting.
The shuttle service costs about $25,000 for a return flight, but that does not include wage costs of RAAF pilots and crew, catering and associated aircraft leasing costs for the government's Boeing 737 business jet.
Senator Johnston, who famously quipped he would not trust the Australian Submarine Corporation to "build a canoe", remains a loyal and frequent flyer with the RAAF, despite criticism in August that the budget crisis should force WA parliamentarians to use commercial flights, like their interstate colleagues.
Government sources said the problem with the commercial alternative was MPs and senators would have to travel a day in advance, because there was just one direct Qantas flight a day from Perth to Canberra and no Virgin flights.
According to the schedule of special-purpose flights between January1 and June30, 10 flights cost $268,000.That included $147,000 on "ghost flights", where an RAAF crew flew across the Nullarbor carrying no passengers to pick up a WA group, which has included Greens Senator Rachel Siewert and Justice Minister Michael Keenan.
The cost of flights per parliamentarian was $10,617. A business-class ticket on Qantas on February9 – the first day of Parliament next year – can be booked for about $1900.
When family members and political staffers on the flight lists are included, the average price per head falls to $2759.
Government staffers generally fly economy. An economy fare from Perth to Canberra can be booked this week for $259.
A spokesman for Senator Johnston said: "As has been a long-standing practice by successive governments, special-purpose aircraft flights are operated in accordance with Commonwealth government guidelines for the use of special-purpose aircraft. When using these flights, consideration must be given to the availability of flights on major domestic airlines.
"It should be noted that the use of flights between WA and the east coast has reduced in comparison to the equivalent period under the previous government, where the former defence minister also resided in WA."
Flights booked in Senator Johnston's name are referred to in the VIP log as "Parliament Special" or "Cabinet special". He also booked seven in his role as Defence Minister.
Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss booked 12 flights and Treasurer Joe Hockey six.
The register shows the RAAF 737 was also used by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge during their visit to Australia in April.