The US is taking aim at “excessive” business-class air travel by UN staff as it presses a campaign to restrain the global body’s multibillion 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 to business class.
That is “clearly unjustifiable,” said US Envoy for UN Management and Reform Joseph Torsella, who since 2011 has been leading the 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,” he said.
The UN spent at least US$769 million of its general budget of more than US$5 billion in 2010 and 2011 moving officials and staff around the world, UN figures show. The UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations spent another US$200 million.
About US$54 million of the US$74 million in 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.
Most UN staff travel under a 1990 system where a lump sum of 75 percent of the full economy class fare can be given. UN auditors estimate that this now costs 83 percent more than 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 nine-hour trip, even if they arrange a stopover to make it longer. The US government only allows business class for 14 hours in the air. Torsella also questions giving UN staff a daily allowance for time spent flying.
“When you look at these things, the business-class use, the lump sum, the daily subsistence allowance, these loopholes, the conclusion seems inescapable that taxpayers are not getting value for their dollars and neither is the UN,” Torsella said.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon last year recommended just “encouraging” greater use of teleconferences, that anyone going to a training course should 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 General Assembly’s Budget Committee, which sets the rules, Torsella said.
He added that taking 10 percent off the travel bill could buy 15.4 million anti-malaria nets.
“Pick your continent and pick your issue and ask: ‘Is the UN doing absolutely everything that needs to be done?’ The answer is surely going to be no,” he said.