Champagne poured into a glass. The debate over business class versus economy travel for development officials has always been a touchy subject, and Devex readers voiced their opinions in a recent LinkedIn discussion. Photo by: Matt @ PEK / CC BY-SA

Work-related travel budgets can often be a touchy subject, especially in an industry largely funded by taxpayers’ money. In the case of air travel, the debate oftentimes focuses on which part of the aircraft aid officials sit.

Who “turns left” on an aircraft these days and what efforts are being made by organizations to reform air travel practice?

In an Executive Member Insight feature, Devex Development Analyst Lorenzo Piccio looked at the flying habits among staffers of development agencies, particularly donor institutions.

Some Devex readers voiced disapproval over business-class travel, while others noted the disparity in the practice between donor agency officials and consultants.

“It is unacceptable that to go and help some poor wretches improve their sorry lot we need to spend colossal sums on airfares so as to have a bit of legroom and a choice of four wines and champagne,” said Guido Orlandini.

He suggested that if international organizations don’t want to scrap such a “ridiculous perk,” they should negotiate preferential fares and access to business lounges for their staff.

And these entities should do more, said Sarah Tirmazi, by accommodating their employees in cheaper hotel rooms rather than in executive suites.

For Jonathan Smith, flying business may be justified if officials need to attend important meetings on the same day they arrive in a particular country after a long flight.

An eight-hour trip though is no longer considered long these days, he said, unless one has to endure long waits at the airport. In that case, it’s helpful to have access to business class lounges to continue work, shower, eat decently and relax.

“I always prefer one pay me my daily rate established on the market,” Smith wrote, “and if going business class interferes with the financials for paying me my honoraria, I far prefer to go economy class and have the program honor my established rates.”

In most cases, consultants have no choice on the type of air travel they can use.

According to Fred van Leeuwen, freelance consultants employed through consultancy firms in European Union-funded programs can only claim refunds for economy-class travel.

“This would be fine, if also all staff directly employed by the EU would fly economy,” he said. “At present the difference contributes to feelings of discontent.”

The same is true for consultants working for the United Nations, suggested Alain Thery, who noted that the global body got rid of the perk of flying business for its external experts a while ago, no matter how long a flight is.

“As for the possibility of a stop-over, that is really a bad scam as (1) these days getting out and back in an airport is adding stress and (2) travel days tend not to be counted and adding a day to your travel is just spiting your nose,” Thery wrote.

Perhaps, the best solution is to cut down on activities that typically entail travelling.

Indeed, according to Jorge Gavarrete Maglione, the problem lies in the excessive number of forums, meetings, expositions, workshops and other gatherings in the development world. Meetings, he argued, are now made possible by applications such as Skype.

“Donors and NGOs spend too much on traveling for summits, conventions and workshops all over the world instead of investing in projects for developing poor countries’ populations. Development executives travel too much just to be for days in luxury hotels talking [about] the same subjects with the same people,” Maglione said.

What is your take on the economy versus business class debate? Share your views by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

  • Eliza Villarino

    Eliza Villarino currently manages one of today’s leading publications on humanitarian aid, global health and international development, the weekly GDB. At Devex, she has helped grow a global newsroom, with talented journalists from major development hubs such as Washington, D.C, London and Brussels. She regularly writes about innovations in global development.