Flying business class

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Chris Blattman has a question for staff at the World Bank and UN:

I seldom fly business myself, even on Bank and UN consultancies, mostly to conserve my project funds for research assistants and survey expenses. My incentives are just right: money I spend on me comes out of money I'd spend making my research projects just a little better. Not so the rest of the agency?

I also hold back from business for another reason: $6000 for a single ticket? When the purpose of your trip is to contribute (however little) to ending poverty, something about that price tag just doesn't seem right.

The Bankers and UNers have a good response: I'm only there for a week, and I'm much more productive if I can sleep on the plane.

To which I reply: your productivity for a 0.5% of your time is worth 4% of your annual salary?

In some cases, I might add: what development assistance exactly is achieved in a week?

In an age of diminishing aid and global belt-tightening, now seems an opportune time to change this little practice. Mr. Zoellick? Mr. Ki-Moon?

And commenter Jamus pits the economist's viewpoint versus the moralist's:

The most economically consistent way to rationalize the idea of flying business, at least for me, boils down to the marginal contribution of flying business to productivity. *If* flying business---and all the psychological and physiological advantages that come with it---means a significantly higher marginal product (relative to the marginal cost), then it should be done. This is how I view business expenses that seem inane, costly, unnecessary, and potentially wasteful (such as advertising and premium office rental and color photocopiers). The only reason to *not* follow such a rule, then, is if you feel that nonprofits/charities/public offices should not be subject to normal economic rationalization, perhaps due to a moral obligation. But that is a whole different argument altogether, and besides it is not entirely clear that nonprofits should always try to squeeze the buck. Cost minimization need not immediately imply profit maximization, if marginal product is endogenous to expenditure.

All said, I fly economy mainly because of this moral imperative, not for any of the other reasons. But like all moral decisions, I believe that it should be one that is personal and non-coercive.

One issue that seems to be missing in the debate is that the value of a business class ticket in terms of increased productivity will vary greatly person to person. If I get less than six hours of sleep in a night, I am worthless. (Incidentally, I have only flown once for the World Bank on work, and it was economy class.) However, I know colleagues who can fall asleep no problem in economy class and who can function just fine on four hours of sleep. Perhaps there should be some kind of incentive for staff of development agencies to fly economy, and then they can choose between two options? Of course, Chris points out that there already is a bit of a tradeoff: "the hot humanitarian workers fly coach."


Ryan Hahn

Operations Officer

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