By Jean Christou
The government’s re-definition of ‘transatlantic’ to ‘five-hour flight’, which would allow more state officials to circumvent the ban on business-class travel, was ridiculed at the House Watchdog Committee yesterday as Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides apparently tried to pin the ‘misunderstanding’ on the accountant-general’s office.
Accountant-general Rea Georgiou said the circular, which effectively extended the perk to other officials had come from the Cabinet. Kasoulides said it had been ‘misinterpreted’ and that the state accountant’s office needed to contact the Secretariat of the Cabinet to clarify the issue.
But deputies at the meeting suggested the government was trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes.
The saga began in January 2013, a month before the previous left-wing AKEL government was ousted, when, as part of austerity measures, business class travel was limited to the President and the House Speaker. The president of the Supreme Court was added back in but other state officials were not to travel business class.
Subsequently the troika’s memorandum of understanding with the new government specifically stated: “Reduce certain benefits and privileges for state officials and senior government officials, in particular by: suspending the right to travel first/business class by state officials, senior government officials and employees with the exception of transatlantic travel.”
At the end of last month, daily Politis reported that the Cabinet had recently reinstated business class travel for certain government officials, some 16 months after it was scrapped.
A circular issued earlier that month clarified that the term ‘transatlantic’ would be defined as flights over five hours including stopovers, although by its very definition the term means actually crossing the Atlantic and from Cyprus this would generally take 15-20 hours at a minimum.
But the new circular meant that even flying to Brussels, a frequent destination for state officials, would now be considered ‘transatlantic’ since Cyprus Airways no longer flew there direct.
The circular was addressed to a number of state officials including the attorney-general, auditor-general, ministry permanent secretaries, and the ombudsman but the government said at the time after being quizzed, that the new provision applied only to ministers.
Deputies yesterday had a field day with the issue. Opposition AKEL MP Giorgos Loucaides said the Cabinet’s new decision was an affront to society. He also urged the government to revise its decision and have the provision apply to actual long journeys.
“Now, when there is a stopover for Brussels, it is considered transatlantic,” he said, adding that in the case of the foreign minister himself it might be justified for him to travel business class. However Kasoulides said rules should apply to all ministers or none at all.
Greens MP Giorgos Perdikis, referring to the troika MoU, said when the state is called to change provisions in the document to alleviate the suffering of the masses, the government insists it can’t be changed.
“But when it comes to public service officials, decisions are made outside of the memorandum,” he added.
Kasoulides argued that the term ‘transatlantic’ as defined in the memorandum had meant state officials travelling to Asian countries would not have been covered for business class but he offered no explanation for why as little as five hours was chosen as the threshold.
He said reaction to the change had been “excessive”, especially from AKEL who he said “protested too much”.
“For four years and 10 months the previous government, used business class. Did they not think of the unemployed… because it was then only two per cent less than it is today,” he said.
Kasoulides said he himself preferred to travel with a low-cost airline when there was a direct flight to Brussels. He also said he had been unaware for a whole year that he was allowed to upgrade to business class when the cost was covered by international organisations.
By Jean Christou