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19 Mar, 2012

Global UN Executives Face Air-Travel Curbs As Austerity Takes Hold


UN Headquarters, New York – United Nations officials worldwide, who spend an estimated US$73 million annually on air travel, are facing drastic cutbacks in their access to first- and business-class air travel as well as their ability to use frequent flier miles for personal travel. The cutbacks, which run the entire gamut from increased use of videoconferencing and rail travel to changes in the per diem, are being finalized as part of a sweeping overhaul of the UN’s entire travel planning system in an era of cutbacks and austerity.

The changes were considered on 15 March 2012 at a meeting of the Administrative and Budgetary committee which agreed that the U.N. must do more to avoid “egregious examples of waste.” The committee considered 20 proposals issued by the Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in his report on more effective utilization of resources for air travel. They will lead to major changes in the systems being used by many other international organisations and perhaps help reduce costs for many convention bureaus which often have to pay the travel costs for members of committees making decisions for hosting events.

The Secretary-General’s report on proposals for a more effective and efficient utilization of resources for air travel (click on the link to download free) recommends changes in a number of areas, including the use of frequent flyer miles gained as a result of official travel, the issuing of daily subsistence allowance, authorization for official travel and the mode, date and standard of accommodation.

A related report of the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ) (click on the link to download free) stresses that resources for official travel should be used judiciously, and criticizes the Secretary-General’s report for not containing sufficient data and detailed analysis.  It further calls on him to submit an initial report to the Assembly’s sixty-seventh session of his proposals for cost savings and their impact on worker productivity resulting from prolonged absences from the office while travelling.

According to a brief of the meeting issued by the UN’s Department of Public Information, (on which the following report is based) Warren Sach, Officer-in-Charge of the Department of Management, introduced the report of the Secretary-General. He said that, with regard to the issuing of daily subsistence allowance, the report took note of the current practice of paying allowances beginning while United Nations officials were in flight.

It recommended the discontinuation of such a practice, instead advocating for the paying of daily subsistence allowance beginning at the arrival of an official at his or her destination and ending the last night spent at that location.

The report also listed recommendations in the areas of authorization for official travel and the mode, date and standard of accommodation.  In that respect, the Secretary-General recommended that the standard of accommodation for air travel for each journey be determined independently, and on the basis of flying time of each leg individually, unless travel was resumed or continued on the same day to the final destination.  Other recommendations were also made in areas including travel time on home leave or family visits, and “lump sum” amounts for travel.

Mr. Collen Kelapile, Chair of ACABQ, then introduced the related report of ACABQ, in which it makes overall observations and addresses the individual measures put forth by the Secretary-General (document A/66/739).  He said the report stressed that resources for official travel should be used judiciously and that before it was authorized, a full account should be made to determine whether other means of representation and methods of communication could be used instead.

Due to the insufficient details in the Secretary-General’s report, the Advisory Committee had had to request additional information in order to assess the merits of each measure, he continued.  The Advisory Committee also dealt with other air-travel-related issues.

Mr. Mourad Benmehidi (Algeria), speaking on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, said he would closely examine the recommendations in the Secretary-General’s report.  He expressed concern over the late issuance of the related Advisory Committee’s report, saying that hindered the ability of delegations to carefully consider the issues at hand.  There was a need for continued, enhanced accountability in the Organization’s air travel requirements.  Further efforts could be made to harmonize practices across the United Nations system wherever possible.  Policy formulation remained the exclusive domain of the Assembly.

Mr. Stephen Lieberman (United States) commended the Secretary-General’s leadership in presenting recommendations to spend the United Nations more than $73 million airfare budget more efficiently and encouraged him to implement the measures outlined in the report as soon as possible.  He encouraged the expanded use of technology, such as video conferencing, but recognized that technology could not replace the value added of all face-to-face meetings.

Where travel was required, the United Nations had an obligation to ensure much more careful and common-sense use of finite travel resources.  The Secretary-General’s report brought to light a number of disturbing facts, which demonstrated the need for the Secretariat to update the United Nations standards of accommodation for air travel to more closely align with Member States’ air travel policies.  For example, the report noted that there were, on average, three to five changes per reservation before a ticket was issued, and that daily subsistence allowance was currently payable to officials of the United Nations while in flight.

Furthermore, the United Nations should immediately clamp down on the costly, wasteful practice of excessive use of business and first-class travel, he said.  That was an easy way to meet the Organization’s travel requirements at a reduced cost.  Member States were also obliged to more responsibly scrutinize practices, such as Member State representatives’ entitlement to an additional 40 per cent above the standard daily subsistence allowance.  He shared the Advisory Committee’s concerns over the lack of transparency on system-wide travel data.

In order to achieve maximum savings, it was necessary to have a comprehensive view of patterns of waste and abuse across the United Nations system. United Nations personnel and Member States must set an appropriate example, at a time when so many people around the world faced economic hardship, Mr. Lieberman said.

Mr. Sung-Yuon Sohn (Republic of Korea) said that as all Member States were suffering from the ongoing, unprecedented economic crisis, the United Nations must more effectively utilize resources.  He recalled that the Secretary-General had also introduced the spirit of “doing more with less” as part of United Nations reform.

He supported the initiatives towards that end set forth in the Secretary-General’s report on air travel and concurred with the proposals to discontinue the application of the 9-hour rule on consultants, individual contractors and trainees, and the in-flight daily subsistence allowance, and to instruct staff not to use frequent flyer miles accrued from official travel for personal travel, among other suggestions.

Efforts to reduce the Organization’s overall air travel expenses should not seriously hamper staff productivity and morale.  A balanced approach was needed to find a “win-win” solution for both Member States and United Nations staff.  He agreed with the Advisory Committee that, to achieve that, the Secretary-General’s report needed more data on which to base decisions.  More studies were needed on cost savings and the impact on productivity and effective mandate implementation.  He also called for more scrutiny of air travel practices and travel standards of major Member States with different levels of economic development and of other comparable organizations.

Mr. Hiroshi Onuma (Japan) commended the Secretariat’s efforts to effectively use resources for official United Nations air travel, saying the proposed measures were an important step “in the right direction”.  He welcomed the Secretary-General’s proposals to change the conditions under which staff members were allowed to travel business class, and said it was important to consider additional steps in that regard.  He noted the Secretary-General’s extensive study on a formal programme that managed frequent flyer miles for official travel, but asked for further clarification on the feasibility of such a programme.