Felcsút Travel Club

Hungarian foreign minister grants himself luxury jet privileges for official travel

In mid-March, the Foreign Minister was interviewed about the 264 million HUF lease of a private Dutch plane discovered by Átlátszó. The minister said, among other things, that for him the use of helicopters and airplanes is a technical matter: he is told which aircraft to take off to get to the right place on time. However, a government decree regulating the travel of state leaders, including ministers, for official purposes allows derogations from purchasing “first-class air tickets” for ministers only if authorised by the head of the body supervising the budget heading. In the case of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, this is Péter Szijjártó, who can authorise the chartering of luxury jets for his trips.

On 12 March, we wrote about Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó’s three official trips on a Dutch luxury jet in 2023. Hiring a private jet for these trips cost taxpayers HUF 264 million. We asked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade about the public spending of more than a quarter of a billion forints, based on which legal authority Péter Szijjártó flies in private chartered aircraft, but we did not receive a response.

Later, the minister was a guest on ATV, where his flights were also discussed. When asked why he used the Dutch luxury jet for 264 million forints of public money, the minister replied: “Well, to get there, obviously.”

General rule: minister can fly first class

With the acquisition of military aircraft and the creating of a legal framework that allows the transport of “civilian” passengers, state leaders and their delegations can now also travel abroad on official business by military aircraft.

Persons in permanent personal protection, such as the Prime Minister, the President of the Republic, or the Minister for Foreign Affairs, may even travel on private journeys by military aircraft if the military duties and other obligations of military aircraft permit.

There is also a government decree in force from 2015 that regulates the allowances that can be claimed by state leaders for official travel, providing a framework for the use of public funds.

In the chapter of this decree entitled “Travel-related allowances”, it is laid down that

“If travel abroad for official purposes is by air, a) to the Minister and the Political Director, to the Director-General of National Security, first class, b) other heads of state and eligible persons as defined in § 3 may purchase economy class air tickets.”

In other words, in the case of Péter Szijjártó, Minister of Foreign Affairs, the general rule is that he can purchase a first-class ticket.

Exception becomes the rule

Among the regulation’s points is the paragraph describing allowances “…may be derogated from with the authorisation of the head of the department supervising the budget chapter, where this is justified by the protocol and the duties to be performed.”

This head, who may authorise a derogation from the general rule, is, in the case of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, none other than Péter Szijjártó.

In other words, the minister himself authorises the hiring of private jets

instead of the travel allowance provided for in the decree, which the minister is entitled to.

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The interior of the Dutch PH-AJX aircraft used by Szijjártó (photo: Exxaero/Facebook)

We consulted some legal experts on the government regulation containing the exception, but their views were not unanimous on the interpretation of the text and the spirit of the legislation.

How much was Szijjártó’s “plane ticket” on the Dutch luxury jet?

Since we requested the costs of the Foreign Minister’s trips in private Dutch planes when we wrote our previous story, and we know the maximum number of seats on the plane, we can calculate how much the “plane ticket”, i.e. the cost of Szijjártó’s trip, would have cost per person.

For example, according to data from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Péter Szijjártó’s Budapest-New York-Budapest trip in September 2023 cost HUF 136.8 million. For the trip, the minister used a private Dutch plane we discovered, which can seat 14 passengers. If we divide the total cost by that much,

we get HUF 9.77 million per person.

In other words, Szijjártó’s ‘plane ticket’ and travel costs on this trip cost at least that much. But the fewer people traveling on a special flight, the higher the cost per person.

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Péter Szijjártó boarding a plane in June 2022 (photo: Minister’s Facebook)

How much would a first-class trip to New York cost?

There is no direct flight from Budapest to New York, the journey can only be made via a transfer. This would at least double the travel time compared to a direct flight.

However, the cost of the trip would be a fraction of the cost per person of a private jet:

first-class tickets for the ministers, as allowed by the regulation, can be purchased for as little as HUF 1.5-2 million for a return trip.

This is at least a fifth of the price of a private jet.

How realistic is it to travel by a scheduled flight?

Given Szijjártó’s current programme and work schedule, scheduled flights would not have been a realistic option in many cases.

The situation would be different if the principle of saving public money, enshrined in legislation, were more prominent or the primary consideration in travel management.

One does not have to go far to see a difference in government officials’ travel for official purposes compared to the Hungarian situation. An article published in September 2023 by the Austrian Profil.at summarises the official trips of Austrian government officials between July 2022 and March 2023.

Even if it is impossible to compare the number and cost of trips for two different countries, it is worth noting the typical comfort level of Austrian ministers when travelling by air. According to the Austrian newspaper,

Austrian ministers are most likely to fly economy class,

and only for longer official trips is business class the most common. As a reminder, both comfort classes are lower than the first class allowed by the Hungarian government decree.

Translated by Zita Szopkó. The original, more detailed Hungarian version of this story was written by Kornél Brassai and can be found here.