scandalous rise of private jets

Rishi Sunak was a Labor Party spokesperson who said the prime minister acted “like a Class A celebrity” after making his third private jet voyage in 10 days. He flew from London to Blackpool last week in a 14-seat RAF jet – a 230-mile journey that will take about three hours by train. He did the same to Leeds a week ago, he could do it in two and a half hours by train, but that wouldn’t look that appealing – judging by the ridiculous photo of him looking important and being greeted like that. got on the plane.

According to a report by European clean transport campaign organization Transport & Environment, private planes pollute 14 times more per passenger than commercial planes and 50 times more than trains. “It goes against the government’s commitment to reach net zero by 2050,” says Alice Ridley, spokesperson for the Better Transport Campaign. “They said they wanted to see more trips by public transport, walking and cycling. Using a private jet is extremely damaging to the environment, especially when there are other alternatives that are much less polluting and at the same time cheaper.”

While private planes carry far fewer passengers, about 40% of flights are empty, they just take the plane to the right place. Flying short distances also means airplanes are less fuel efficient.

“A private jet is the most polluting mode of transport you can get,” says Matt Finch, policy manager for Transport and Environment UK. “The average private jet emits two tons of carbon per hour. The average European is responsible [emitting] eight tons of carbon per year. You fly to the south of France and come back, it’s half a year in one go.”

Transport and Environment says the UK is the largest private jet polluter in Europe, responsible for around 20% of emissions, followed by France (though the US accounts for the vast majority of all private jet flights). While there’s been a slowdown after the peaks during Covid, when commercial carriers closed – or to avoid crowds at airports – when the wealthiest turned to private jets, private jet travel levels are still higher than before the pandemic and many companies are reporting growth.

“Since September of last year, we’ve seen a 10% to 15% drop from the previous year,” says Richard Koe, managing director of private aviation data analysts WINX. “But if you look at January 2023, it’s a little over 10% compared to January 2019. That’s solid growth.”

A study last year for Airbus Corporate Jets found that 65% of the large US companies interviewed regularly use private jets; one-third had started during the pandemic, and nearly three-quarters said they plan to use private jets more in the next two years. Last year was a record year in private aircraft sales. Obviously, despite environmental concerns, there is still significant interest – in less than two weeks, a global private aviation conference is being held in London.

Koe says private aviation is “a really immature industry that appeals to a very small fraction of very wealthy people.” But private jets are becoming more accessible. Some charter companies will allow you to book seats for much less than the cost of renting your own jet – a “empty leg” – a repositioning flight or a plane returning to base after a one-way flight. For example, chartering a plane from England to the south of France costs £13,000 in the area. A Transport and Environment report warned that all this will attract new customers, normalize this luxury form of travel and increase demand.

“Once you’ve had your first private flight, you don’t want to do anything else,” says Kenny Dichter, president and CEO of Wheels Up, a US-based private aviation company. “The level of comfort, convenience and service is hard to peak.”

In the UK, private jets tend to use small, private airports such as Biggin Hill and Farnborough, which are mostly concentrated around London – from there it’s a short helicopter ride to the capital. Says Dichter: “While flying in a private plane is certainly wasteful, it’s not just for the super-rich.”

Why doesn’t someone who drives a private jet have to pay fuel tax?

Matt Finch

These could be people booking a private excursion or adventure travelers “looking for the next big thrill in a hard-to-reach place.” He says his business customers have discovered that “time saved on private flight helps them do more, see more of their customers and employees, and build their businesses.”

How sensitive are they to criticism of increased emissions from private aviation? “It’s definitely something of increasing importance in the industry,” says Dichter, who says they’re looking for ways to reduce carbon emissions “through the use of sustainable and alternative fuels,” but it’s not prominently mentioned on their website. environmental plan.

The super-rich seem to be largely immune to flight embarrassment, though they may be more sensitive to privacy issues. Social media users using publicly available flight data follow celebrities and business people and announce each flight with its carbon impact. Of all the jets tracked by the CelebJets account, Taylor Swift’s plane was found to have made the most flights, emitting more than 8,000 tons of carbon. (A spokesperson for the singer denied that Swift was on every flight, saying his plane had been loaned to others.) Boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr was next, followed by Jay-Z. Meanwhile, Canadian rapper Drake owns a commercial-scale passenger plane, the Boeing 767.

In December, Elon Musk suspended the CelebJets Twitter account, along with ElonJet, who monitors his own private jet, both led by coding students Jack Sweeney. ElonJet has since back to twitter, but no longer follows Musk’s jet in real-time (although it’s on Sweeney’s Instagram account). Meanwhile, Musk has ordered a Gulfstream jet, according to reports. Bernard Arnault, CEO of luxury group LVMH, sold his private plane to avoid scrutiny. “The bottom line is that no one can see where I’m going because when I take a private plane, I charter a plane,” he said in a radio interview last year.

A common rationale for using private jets (often euphemistically referred to as business jets) is that they are critical to the efficient functioning of large businesses and thus economies, but this does not stand up to scrutiny, Finch says. “There’s a misconception that it’s business people flying to make big deals that are going to change the course of an organization and increase the salary of 10,000 people,” he says. “This is not true.”

Transport & Environment’s report found that private jet use in Europe peaks during the summer months, with some of the most popular airports being Nice and Ibiza. Finch says: “There’s suddenly a lot of business deals around Nice in August, or …” A mocking pause. “It’s really hard to say they’re going to Ibiza for business.”

The other rationale is that private jets only make up 2% of all aviation emissions, but the message from environmental campaigners is that the industry is growing, that many flights are unnecessary and the journey can be made by a commercial carrier or train, and the use of a private jet undermines the message the rest of us get about reducing emissions.

What would Finch wish to happen to stop the rise of private jet travel? “First, no jet fuel is taxed, even though the EU has yet to enact the proposals. But for me, start taxing private jet fuel tomorrow. These guys can afford it; The average private jet owner is a billionaire. You pay fuel tax when you put gas in your car, why doesn’t someone traveling with a private jet pay fuel tax?

Ridley wants to see increased air passenger tax (APD) for private jet passengers. “They are not asked to pay extra for the privilege of flying a private jet,” he says. At the end of last year, the Better Transport Campaign called for a “super” APD tax on private jet passengers, calculating it could raise around £1.4 billion each year. “We want to see more of the money collected by taxation go to public transport, which will benefit more people.”

Dogs on stairs leading to private plane

A British company has launched a special service for those who want to fly with their pets. Photo: Joe McBride/Getty Images

But Finch argues, oddly enough, that people flying in these polluting machines could accelerate greener air travel. Private jet users are “people who can afford to innovate. We currently have electric and hydrogen fuel cell aircraft. There was a 19-seat hydrogen fuel cell airplane flying over England last week. progress is happening [and they are becoming] more ready for commercial use.”

Private jets – as they are smaller and fly shorter distances – are particularly suited to this new technology. Finch says it only takes a few billionaires to place orders to get the market moving. So should we be grateful to private jet users? It looks elongated. “Currently, there is no mechanism to compel private jet buyers to buy or even consider zero-emission aircraft,” Finch says.

How sensitive is the industry to criticism of its environmental impacts? “It’s quite different in the US than in Europe,” Koe says. “The industry in Europe is hypersensitive to this. At most networking events and conferences, you see sustainability as the top of the agenda: how the industry can respond, how to mitigate, how to innovate.”

Last quarter, Victor, a UK-based private airline charter, saw a 5% increase in bookings from new customers. Since June of last year, all Victor flights have been offering sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), a biofuel usually made from waste products such as cooking oil. The company previously balanced flights, but now says its focus is on SAF.

“I have a role as co-CEO of an on-demand private jet business and I care about the environment and therefore, I hope, I use my position to show what is possible,” says Victor’s Toby Edwards. “There is definitely a group of customers willing to do everything they can to book a flight to reduce carbon emissions, and purchasing sustainable aviation fuel is a much better choice than offsets for private passengers.”

Edwards says one in five customers chose SAF at the time of booking; the company’s internal goal is to increase that to a quarter. Others are more critical – SAF will have absorbed carbon throughout its life cycle, but it is not entirely carbon neutral due to the energy required to purify and transport it. Also, it gives off CO when an aircraft uses it.2 into the atmosphere as fossil fuels do.

In its current form, the private jet craze shows no signs of easing. This month, a British company that offers private jets for pets launched a service after noticing how much demand it had received from people wanting to bring their cats or dogs on board. Adam Golder founded G6 Aviation in 2021 to offer private air travel to wealthy people, many of whom continue to fly privately, suspended due to the pandemic. “You can go somewhere and come home on your own schedule in a day,” he says. “Everything about your trip is bespoke. If you want to make several cities in one day, you can.

G6’s pay-per-seat service, K9 Jets, hopes to launch its maiden flight between New Jersey and London in April. Golder says his flights can last up to 10 people and 10 dogs (depending on the dog’s size). G6 has attracted 2,000 people over the past few weeks. Golder doesn’t expect seats to be reserved by the super-rich; They may be people who have moved from the US to Europe and are willing to pay around £8,750 for a seat with their income from home sales, for example. “There are a lot of stories about mishaps when people’s pets are in cargo,” says Golder. “People are willing to spend more than ever and fly in a private jet with their pets.”

But to environmental groups, it’s another symptom of the clear disconnect between the desire for private luxury travel and the immediate reality of the climate crisis. “We’re talking decades before we look at the genre. [aviation] technology that could solve the climate problem,” says Ridley. “Currently, there is no other way to reduce climate emissions from aviation other than by flying less.”

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