Publicly-funded universities spent about €1.5m on luxury flights

Biggest spender was UCD, figures show, with premium seats costing over €6,000 for a single fare

Trinity College Dublin spent more then a quarter of a million euro on business class flights last year. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Trinity College Dublin spent more then a quarter of a million euro on business class flights last year. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill


Ireland’s publicly-funded universities spent about €1.5 million last year flying academics around the world on luxury flights, newly-obtained figures show.

The biggest spender was University College Dublin (UCD), which paid almost €1 million for business class and premium fares over a year, records released under Freedom of Information reveal.

In its disclosure, the university complained about the damage of Government cuts to its funding.

Trinity College Dublin, which just days ago called for further investment to bulwark against its tumbling down the world university rankings, spent more then a quarter of a million euro on business class flights last year.

Air travel records for UCD show staff booking premium seats at a cost of up to more than €6,000 for a single fare. A business class flight to Kuwait came in at €6,419, a seat to Shanghai cost €5,269 and a luxury fare to Brisbane was €5,155.

Two business-class flights to Abidjan, in the Ivory Coast, cost more than €5,000 each.

Asked for records showing all non-economy and non-budget flights, UCD released details of more than 400 trips, costing more than €960,000 – the vast majority of them business class, mostly running into thousands of euro each.

There were a handful of premium economy fares, which cost up to €2,000.

UCD declined to detail the purpose of each flight. The records relate to the financial year, from October 1st , 2017 to September 31st, 2018.

Top class fares included to Penang in Malaysia (€4,963), Guangzhou (€4,404) and Shanghai (€4,105) in China, as well as Mumbai (€4,500) and Bangalore (€4,264) in India.

San Francisco

There were business class tickets to San Francisco (€4,887), New York (€4,674), Philadelphia (€4,124) and two to Tampa, Florida, costing €2,040 each.

Two flights to Sydney cost €4,193 and €4,020, a fare to Melbourne came in at €4,131, while two trips to the Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Tobago came in at €2,058 each.

More unusual fares included to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia (€1,152).

There were also some luxury flights closer to home: a flight to Paris cost €2,338, while business class flights were also booked to Tel Aviv in Israel (€811) and Bremen in Germany (€655).

UCD said all staff travelling business class must obtain prior written approval “thus ensuring there is a solid business case each time”.

“It is worth noting that we generally only approve business class flights for staff who are travelling long distances to recruit international students for UCD,” a spokeswoman said.

“These students, while adding quality and improving the overall UCD experience for all students, also pay a premium fee which has allowed UCD and the university sector in Ireland partly offset the damage caused by government cuts to our funding during the recession.”

The UCD spokeswoman said the amount spent on business class flights “seems large when taken in isolation of other facts but when taken alongside the scale of our operation, it does give us excellent financial value”.

TCD declined to detail individual business class fares for its staff last year which ran to €259,084 in total.

‘Teach part-time’

Almost €150,000 of these were related to the university’s links to the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT), with which it runs joint degrees in physiotherapy, occupational therapy as well as radiography and radiation.

“The vast bulk of the flights were for Dublin-based Trinity staff who teach part-time in Asia and help to generate significant financial surpluses for Trinity,” a spokeswoman said.

“These fly-in staff teach for intensive teaching periods at the campuses of SIT as well as their normal teaching in Dublin.”

Trinity said more than €30,000 in business class flights were to “non EU student markets”, almost €20,000 was for “research projects funded by [an] external funder” and nearly €15,000 related to “strategic business meetings”.

It declined to detail more than €47,000 in business fares which it labelled only as “Other”.

University College Cork said it spent €96,978 on business class and premium flights last year (including one fare to Singapore costing €6,898), NUI Galway spent €36,700 while DCU spent €32,632 on mostly premium economy as well as business and first class.

Maynooth University said it “does not hold records of individual flights centrally”, adding that there were no more than four business class fares last year among a total air travel bill of almost €550,000.

‘Academic activities’

Technological University Dublin (formerly Dublin Institute of Technology) paid for one first class flight to Ljubljana in Slovenia for “academic activities” at a cost of €513.

University of Limerick said some staff flights are booked through a contracted travel agent while others are booked directly and later claimed in expenses. Full disclosure of its records “would require a significant amount of time”, a spokeswoman said.