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Senator probes NASA airfield deal for Google's jets

Is space agency giving Larry a break on government's jet fuel?

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A US senator has asked NASA (PDF) to cough up five years of data about Larry Page and Sergey Brin's personal jets – in the latest flare-up in the rumbling controversy over whether NASA is cutting Google bosses a soft deal by storing their private airplanes in a government-funded research airport.

Google rents 42 acres of land and office space from NASA on their Ames campus, just opposite Google's San Fran offices. The NASA Moffett airfield there also hosts the "Google fleet" – private planes used by Google employees and guests.

Google rents the space and the landing rights for over $3.7m a year for the land and $1.5m for the airplane landing rights, according to a 2008 San Fran Chronicle article.

Google manages the airport through a separate holding company called H2II LLC, and signed the agreement with NASA in 2007.

But some say Google bosses are getting a cushy taxpayer-subsidised private airport for its aircraft, which the senator says include a Boeing 767, a Boeing 757, multiple Gulfstream G550s and helicopters.

Iowa senator Chuck Grassley wants to know how much Google pays for the space, and what it uses the planes for.

The purpose of putting taxpayer money into Moffett Airfield is that it is used for scientific research, but critics say the Google's planes are used much more for tootling Oompa Loompas around than for scientific research.

Grassley asserts in his letter of 14 May (PDF):

1 Whistleblowers have questioned the benefit to the US government from the Google fleet being housed at Moffett Airfield. A recent investigative report analyzed Google flight tracking data, which indicated only five percent of flights were science missions.

2 Further, many Google jets based at Moffett Airfield allegedly have flown all over the world, including Italy, the Caribbean, China and Ireland.

3 Additionally, my office received allegations that Google has purchased jet fuel from the government at a discounted price, a price allegedly well below the market price due to its tax treatment.

The senator has asked for the flying records for each plane for the past five years, including the names of all the passengers on board each trip.

Grassley also wants a record of every time each of the planes has been refuelled in the past and a copy of all the fuelling arrangements.

The senator has given NASA until 25 May to cough up the records.

We've requested more information from Google about their use of Moffett Airfield and how much they're paying for it, though have yet to get a response. ®

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