Distinction in travel journalism
Is independent travel journalism important to you?
Click here to keep it independent

16 Mar, 2018

UN spent US$4 billion on travel in 2012-15, to cutback on first-class trips

United Nations, March 15, (UN media release) – The Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary) took up the air travel policies of the United Nations on day two of its resumed seventy‑second session today, with delegates voicing support for the Secretary‑General’s proposal that high‑ranking officials fly business class — rather than first class — to help rein in one of the most expensive aspects of the Organization’s budget.

The representative of the European Union, Laura Demetris, noting with concern that overall costs related to air travel had increased year after year, biennium after biennium, said resources for official travel should be used more carefully.  “We want to be clear that the same strict discipline that Member States apply to themselves has to apply to both the United Nations and United Nations‑funded travel,” she stressed.

Emphasizing that “business class is the first class of yesterday”, she said first class entitlements were not in the spirit of a modern, accountable, effective and efficient United Nations.  The European Union noted with regret the level of fragmentation that existed across the system and the continued application of quite generous travel policies across parts of the system, she added.

In the same vein, Cherith Norman-Chalet (United States) said that a time when the United Nations was striving to instil budgetary discipline, flying first class went against fiscal reality.  Significant improvements must be made to air travel policies and practices, starting with the elimination of first class for all United Nations travel.  “My delegation believes economy class should be the United Nations standard of travel, as it is for the national Governments of many Member States,” she said, adding that her delegation looked forward to a robust and constructive discussion on air travel policies.

Mohamed Fouad Ahmed (Egypt), speaking on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, said the Group would examine the Secretary‑General’s air travel proposals to ensure that the Secretariat could deliver on all its mandates in a cost‑effective manner.  It looked forward to more information on the proposal to abolish first class travel, he said, adding that the Secretariat should do more to encourage advance purchase of airline tickets.

Christian Saunders, Assistant Secretary‑General, Office of Central Support Services, Department of Management, introduced the Secretary‑General’s report on standards of accommodation for air travel (document A/72/716).  He recalled that, at the General Assembly’s request, a review of the Secretariat’s travel policy was conducted with a view to leveraging Umoja technologies and ensuring further simplification and streamlining.  The report proposed a revised methodology for determining the standards of accommodation, based on a single threshold total time model. 

Such a change would help streamline travel administration, paving the way for the United Nations to make better use of available technology.  “A great deal of analysis and data modelling has been produced to support this proposal,” he said. 

Other changes proposed in the report included an end to an interim measure for home leave lump sum travel, introduced in 2013, thus encouraging greater use of the cost‑effective lump sum option, and eliminating first class travel for Assistant Secretaries‑General and Under‑Secretaries‑General when representing the Secretary‑General.  He noted that how data from the Umoja travel module had made it possible to include comprehensive information in the report.

Babou Sene, Vice‑Chair of Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions, introduced the corresponding report (document A/72/7/Add.44), and noted that it had been proposed to simplify the determination of the standards of accommodation for official travellers below the level of Assistant Secretary‑General by replacing the current dual threshold model with a single threshold, total travel time model.  In the absence of data regarding specific options for such a model, the Advisory Committee was not in a position to analyse the proposal and felt that the case had not been made for amending the current standard of accommodation decided by the General Assembly.

Noting the decrease in acceptance rates of the lump sum option, and the additional administrative costs for the Organization of the ticketed option, the Advisory Committee recommended approving the proposal, pending the Secretary‑General’s suggestions on the lump sum scheme to be submitted to the General Assembly.  The Advisory Committee recommended approving the proposal that the standards of accommodation for Under‑Secretaries‑General or Assistant Secretaries‑General be applicable for all their official travel, including when they represent the Secretary‑General.

Besides the reports of the Secretary‑General and the Advisory Committee, the Committee had before it a 105‑page report from the Joint Inspection Unit titled “Review of air travel policies in the United Nations system:  achieving efficiency gains and cost savings and enhancing harmonization” (document A/72/629), along with comments from the Secretary‑General and those of the United Nations System Chief Executives Board for Coordination (document A/72/629/Add.1).

After staff costs, travel accounts for one of the largest budget components of the United Nations system, making it one of the largest consumers of travel services among international organizations.  From 2012 to 2015, air travel and related expenses totalled $4.01 billion, according to the Joint Inspection Unit report.  Standards of accommodation varied between entities, but for most, staff below the D‑2 grade could fly business class on journeys longer than 9 hours.

The Secretary‑General’s report put the number of trips by commercial aircraft by Secretariat staff from July 2016 to June 2017 at 98,488, of which 84 per cent were in economy class, 13 per cent in business class and less than 1 per cent — or 51 journeys — in first class.  Three per cent of trips involved multiple classes of service.