Flights of fancy


The UK became the first major economy to commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. Combined with the United Nations climate change conference to be held in Glasgow this November, this suggests a clear desire by HM Government to reduce emissions, including through air travel.

Though some government departments – such as the Foreign Office or Ministry of Defence – will need to use flights regularly, many others are still flying unnecessarily. This note details such flights, before the covid-19 pandemic locked down the UK.

There has been a marked reduction in business and first class flights since 2007-8, when the TaxPayers’ Alliance first investigated central government flight purchases. However the Cabinet Office business travel policy principles still stipulate that “no public sector personnel should be travelling first class, irrespective of grade, entitlement or distance.” In future, all departments’ travel policies should be updated to ensure that first class flights are prohibited for all officials and ministers.

Since March 2020, covid-19 has moved significant amounts of work online. It is therefore likely that in subsequent years, government travel by ministers and officials could be significantly reduced.


Click to read the full research paper


Key findings

  • Government departments booked at least 271,507 domestic and international flights over the 2019-20 financial year, costing a total of £102,031,408.

  • The Ministry of Defence, which booked numerically the largest number of flights at a total of 237,815, included flights booked via the MOD travel contract (with civilian airlines), which incorporates and includes civilians, military, military families and contractors.

  • The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was the only Whitehall ministry to purchase first class flights, with two purchased for £11,393. This involved one flight on the 13 June 2019 to Tokyo at a cost of £4,538 and another on the 24 April 2019 to Montreal costing £6,854. Both flights departed from London Heathrow.

  • The Department for Transport purchased 286 business class flights at a cost of £760,411 – the highest number of any department. This included domestic flights from London to locations such as Edinburgh and Glasgow.

  • The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport purchased 19 premium economy flights – the highest number of any department – at a cost of £27,503. These included flights to destinations such as Sydney, Australia and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The department also spent a further £86,144 on 27 business class flights. This included £19,527 spent on four flights from London to Beijing, China and £16,218 on four flights from London to Bengaluru, India.
  • The Wales Office booked 36 per cent of their 33 flights in business class costing a total of £46,034. The remaining 64 per cent of flights were purchased in economy class costing £3,012.

  • The Scotland Office purchased 100 per cent of their 789 flights in economy class, costing £89,750.


Click to read the full research paper

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