Air Force Reviewing Layover Guidelines amid Scrutiny of Trump Property Stay

FILE - In this July 29, 2015 file photo, a helicopter owned by Donald Trump departs from the Turnberry golf course in Turnberry, Scotland.  (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)
FILE - In this July 29, 2015 file photo, a helicopter owned by Donald Trump departs from the Turnberry golf course in Turnberry, Scotland. (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)

After defending a scheduled stop made by a C-17 Globemaster III crew at Scotland's Glasgow Prestwick Airport earlier this year and their subsequent decision to stay at a Trump-owned property, the U.S. Air Force now says it is investigating where and how often its aircrew members stay at various hotels around the world.

Air Force chief spokesman Brig. Gen Ed Thomas on Sunday told Military.com that, while initial "reviews indicate that aircrew transiting through Scotland adhered to all guidance and procedures, we understand that U.S. service members lodging at higher-end accommodations, even if within government rates, might be allowable but not advisable."

"Therefore, we are reviewing all associated guidance," he said in an email.

Politico first reported Friday that the House Committee on Oversight and Reform is investigating the stopovers at Prestwick -- first while en route to Kuwait and then again when returning to the U.S. -- as part of a larger probe into military stays at Trump-owned properties.

Related: Air Force Defends C-17 Crew's Stopover at Scotland Trump Resort

The C-17 crew, consisting of seven active-duty and National Guard crew members from Alaska, stayed at Trump's Turnberry resort when en route to Kuwait, "but it doesn't appear the Trump property was used on the return leg," Thomas said Saturday, adding that the stops at Prestwick were not unusual because of how often transport aircraft operate around the world on a daily basis.

Politico reported that the Air Force has spent $11 million on fuel at Prestwick, roughly 20 miles from Turnberry, since October 2017. The crews reportedly could have saved money by refueling at a nearby base such as RAF Lakenheath, United Kingdom.; Ramstein Air Base, Germany; or Naval Station Rota, Spain.

Lawmakers want to know whether U.S. military stays have boosted Turnberry's revenue.

"Even when [Air Force] aircrews follow all directives and guidance, we must still be considerate of perceptions of not being good stewards of taxpayer funds that might be created through the appearance of aircrew staying at such locations," Thomas said.

He added that the review, ordered by Acting Air Force Secretary Matt Donovan and Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, will include all active-duty, Guard and Reserve units.

According to data provided by Air Mobility Command (AMC), there has been an uptick of cargo aircraft, primarily C-17s, stopping at Prestwick between 2015 and 2019.

AMC aircraft have landed at Prestwick 936 times during that time frame, including 659 overnight stays in the area, officials said.

That breaks down to 95 stops at Prestwick with 40 overnight lodging stays in 2015; 145 stops and 75 overnights in 2016; 180 stops and 116 overnights in 2017; 257 stops and 208 overnights in 2018; and 259 stops and 220 overnights through August 2019.

Responding to news reports, the president said via Twitter on Monday that he was unaware of the stops at the airport and his resort.

"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!)," Trump said. "NOTHING TO DO WITH ME."

In 2014, prior to his run for office, the Trump organization announced that it would partner with Prestwick airport to bring in new business, stating it would also be the organization's preferred location for "Trump aviation operations."

"Prestwick will serve as the main hub for not only Mr. Trump's private aviation operation but in particular it will service the Trump Turnberry Resort which, with Mr. Trump's investment of £250 million, will transform it into the finest resort in the world," according to an announcement at the time.

Thomas said Prestwick has been a "more viable option" for aircraft transiting to and from the Middle East compared with "other military stopover locations that have imposed increasingly restrictive operating hours."

"Prestwick is the only place I can think of in Europe we stop currently that's civilian," an Air Force instructor pilot who flies mobility aircraft said Monday on condition of anonymity. "Prestwick is also overflow for lower-priority missions."

Military.com spoke with a handful of pilots, many of whom have stopped at Prestwick themselves in recent months, who offered similar explanations. The instructor pilot provided photos of his aircraft parked on the ramp at Prestwick in May.

"All our missions are racked and stacked in priority. For instance, president or vice president support missions would be the highest. If there are a lot of high-priority missions out in the system, they'll be given priority at the military bases to ensure they have all the support they need -- maintenance, military lodging, intelligence support, etc.," the instructor pilot said.

Sending traffic to Prestwick has taken some strain off bases such as Ramstein, which typically sees heavy cargo aircraft and tanker traffic, and Lakenheath, which hosts an abundance of fighter aircraft, the instructor pilot explained.

"If the main military bases are at capacity, then lower-priority missions will be pushed to locations like Prestwick to ensure they can keep moving and not [have to] wait for openings at the military bases," the instructor pilot said. "And the United Kingdom is accommodating with Diplomatic Clearance, whereas other countries, [it] requires days to weeks advanced coordination, and other airports may not have the ability to handle the volume or flexibility required for AMC missions."

Given the number of tankers and cargo aircraft moving frequently around the world, the instructor pilot said military bases are sometimes at capacity "to service every mission we have been tasked with" by U.S. Transportation Command or AMC.

"It's logistically impossible in regions where we have zero military bases, and it would ultimately mean longer delivery timelines for our users to receive their needed cargo," the instructor pilot said.

"Is [stopping at a Trump-owned property] smart, given the optics? Probably not now," added a former active-duty KC-135 tanker pilot who's also made a few stops at Prestwick.

The mission in question began at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, on March 13 and included stops at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada; Portsmouth International Airport, New Hampshire, a dual civilian-military airport; Prestwick; and Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait, Thomas said.

The crew returned to Elmendorf on March 19. But the stop in Scotland prompted the House Committee on Oversight and Reform to look for additional anomalies.

"Bottom line, the availability of civil airfields like Prestwick is essential to ensuring that [Air Force] aircraft can sustain the necessary speed and throughput required to accomplish our mission," Thomas said.

As for lodging costs on that trip, the Air Force said the Turnberry resort offered a discounted rate of $136 a night, less expensive than a nearby Marriott at $161 a night.

"At some civil airfields with less populated local areas, these multiple options may vary in distance from the airfield and can require transit times up to an hour or more," Thomas said.

Turnberry is roughly 20 miles from Prestwick, a drive of 45 to 60 minutes.

"In some cases, these lodging options are at locations which could be considered 'higher-end' hotels," Thomas said. "Existing policy is that, as long as the location is suitable and within the allowable DoD rate, aircrews may stay at a 'higher end' hotel."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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