The United States is taking aim at “excessive” business class air travel by UN staff as it presses a campaign to restrain the global body’s multi-billion dollar budget.
Complaints by the US and other cash-strapped western nations have been bolstered by revelations that nearly three quarters of the money spent on air fares at UN headquarters goes on business class. That is “clearly unjustifiable,” said Joseph Torsella, the US envoy who since 2011 has been leading a US war on “waste” at the UN.
Rules on business class travel are “out of whack” and the failure to enact “common sense and overdue reforms is creating a system that is ripe for abuse,” said the US envoy for UN management and reform.
The United Nations spent at least $769 million of its general budget of more than $5 billion in 2010-11 on moving officials and staff around the world, according to UN figures. The peacekeeping department, which has its own budget, spent another $200 million.
Some $54 million of the $74 million of air tickets bought at the main headquarters in New York and Geneva were business class. Diplomats say the figure is probably much higher as no clear figures have been given. “There are a series of loopholes that are just on the face of it crazy,” Torsella said.
Most UN staff travel under a 1990 system where a lump sum of 75 per cent of the full economy class fare can be given. UN auditors estimate that this now costs 83 per cent more than current regular fares. The UN has about 30 different outside travel agencies and so does not get economies of scale and hardly uses online booking, Torsella said.
UN staff can claim business class for any trip of nine hours, even if they arrange a stopover to make it longer. Torsella also questions giving UN staff a daily living allowance for time spent flying.
UN leader Ban Ki-moon last year recommended greater use of teleconferences to those doing a training course or fly economy and ending the daily allowance for time in the air. These ideas have “languished” because of wider political battles between the 193 members states on the UN Assembly’s budget committee which sets the rules and is meeting again this month, said Torsella. He points out that taking 10 per cent off the travel bill could buy 15.4 million anti-malaria nets.