Last year, Twitter account @CelebrityJets drew attention to one particular fact about private jet use that the extraordinarily wealthy would prefer we didn’t know: many of them treat their pricey aerial toys like a regular person might treat a taxi or a bus, hopping on board for short trips that can last as little as ten or fifteen minutes. Besides super-yachts, it’s difficult to think of anything more perfectly symbolic of decadence or excess than personal private jets.
Among other things, the carbon footprint from even a brief trip is enormous. A single, seventeen-minute jaunt by billionaire Kylie Jenner, for example, produces emissions equivalent to one quarter of what the average person produces in a whole year, all to travel a distance Jenner could have driven in only forty minutes.
Celebrity flights deservedly drew the majority of the public’s ire, but many such trips by less well-known wealthy people have received less attention. And while the individual flights themselves might be potent symbols of the problem, they don’t adequately convey its scale.
A new report by the Institute for Policy Studies offers a look at the booming market for private air travel and its devastating ecological consequences. Titled “High Flyers: How Ultra-Rich Private Jet Travel Costs the Rest of Us and Burns Up Our Planet” and coauthored by researchers Chuck Collins, Omar Ocampo, and Kalena Thomhave, the study begins by noting the very direct correlation between growing wealth inequality and the proliferation of private jet ownership.
While one 2000 estimate found there to be just under ten thousand privately owned jets in the world, the past two decades have seen the global fleet increase by 133 percent to more than twenty-three thousand. The overall number of flights has exploded as well. Prior to 2020, the twenty-first-century record for private flights was 4.8 million in 2007. Last year, the figure was an astonishing 5.3 million, the volume of flights growing by about 20 percent after the start of the pandemic.
Global aviation is responsible for about 3.5 percent of the emissions behind human-driven climate change, with private jets accounting for just 4 percent of this total, according to one study that drew on pre-2020 data. Nevertheless, as the authors rightly point out, there’s an obvious distinction between the emissions yielded by commercial aviation and those caused by individual private jet flights. A regular airplane often carries hundreds of passengers — meaning that wealthy jetsetters “are responsible for a highly disproportionate amount of carbon emissions from air travel.” As a result, the average pollution generated by a private passenger is at least ten times that of a commercial one.
This is only an average. To illustrate just how significant a single rich person’s plane-related carbon footprint can be, the authors take special note of Elon Musk — who hops on one his four private planes about once every two days. In 2022 alone, the result was some 2,112 tons of carbon dioxide, or 132 times the average carbon footprint of an individual American.
Most private jets still make use of commercial airports and fly through the same airspace. As the study explains, this effectively means that the public is subsidizing luxury air travel:
Because these are public-use airports, they receive a significant amount of investment from the taxpayer. The FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] grants general aviation airports public funds through the Airport Improvement Program each year. This program is funded through the FAA’s Airport and Airways Trust Fund (AATF). This trust fund makes up the bulk of FAA funding, and the bulk of it is funded by commercial passenger taxes and fuel taxes. General aviation flights do not pay commercial passenger taxes. Instead, those taking such flights are obligated to pay duties on fuel. Jet fuel taxes made up $186 million of the more than $8 billion in tax revenue that was allocated to the AATF in FY2021, or about 2 percent of the fund’s total tax revenue. Meanwhile, more than half of the AATF’s tax revenue — $5.32 billion — came from passenger taxes.
The policy response to all of this should be obvious. A sales tax of just 10 percent on already-owned private aircraft and a 5 percent tax on those newly purchased would have yielded $2.6 billion in revenue in 2022, with the likes of Musk having to pay an extra $3.9 million for their new planes (last year, the billionaire paid $78 million for a single aircraft). Given the obscene carbon footprint, the authors also recommend doubling the existing federal tax on jet fuel for wealthy flyers from $0.219 per gallon to $0.438, a measure that would have generated $96,954.80 in revenue from Musk’s 2022 flights alone.
If anything, these steps would be conservative. For both moral and environmental reasons, such flights deserve to be heavily taxed at minimum. The billions of new revenue that would be collected could be directed to any number of socially constructive ends — and would take an immediate bite out of global carbon emissions in the process.