Leo Varadkar says the pilots had to "keep up a certain number of flying hours"

The Taoiseach has revealed that the Government jet was flown around empty during the recession – because State pilots needed to log air hours.

Leo Varadkar was defending President Michael D Higgins’s use of the jet for a trip to Belfast in May.

He said the costs associated with using the jet are “almost minimal” – and noted that travelling by land would have cost the taxpayer money too.

“There is an understandable public concern around the cost of using something like the jet,” he said.

“But bear in mind the plane is owned by the Government - the pilots are paid anyway.

“We had the very strange situation during the recession when it was actually being flown around empty because the pilots have to keep up a certain number of flying hours.

“But the added cost is actually very small and there is obviously security costs associated with going by land as well.”

The Taoiseach Leo Varadkar canvassing on Grafton Street in Dublin on behalf of Michael D Higgins for President and a ‘Yes’ vote in the Blasphemy Referendum, 23-10-2018. Image: Leah Farrell/RollingNews

Sinn Féin candidate Liadh Ní Riada yesterday said the Irish people deserved answers as to why the plane was used “at huge public expense to fly within the island of Ireland.”

During a televised debate last week, President Higgins suggested he was forced to travel by air due to security concerns.

At a campaign event yesterday, he said that his office makes decisions on his travel based on “logistics and security.”