First seen on Forbes.com – August 22, 2019
Much like before and after the World Economic Forum, it was hard to avoid blaring headlines in recent weeks calling out the alleged hypocrisy of billionaires, CEOs, celebrities and environmentalists. As you may recall, they descended on Sicily in their private jets for the seventh annual “summer camp” hosted by Google, this year with a focus on sustainability. Then as I was writing this, OMG, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex were spotted using a private jet. That was several days ago and the controversy is still going strong.
Private jets are of course a popular lightning rod, easily and often used as a metaphor for excess, waste, greed, mismanagement and even criminality, which is not to say there aren’t folks flying on them who haven’t done something for which they should deservedly be taken to the woodshed. When somebody who is concerned about our planet’s future is found to be flying privately, it’s often a take no prisoners approach. Just ask the young Royals (see below).
But back to the point about what I want to discuss:
When it comes to the conversation about global warming, private jets are an important part of the solution.
In terms of limiting planetary damage, in some cases, more private jet travelers in place of mass tourism might even be beneficial, not only to the local economies that rely on visitors, but for the environment.
So you don’t have to go back and re-read the last sentence, I’ll say it again, private jets are not the problem, as much as it’s fun to blame them.
Back in 2007, I co-authored a book titled, “The Sky’s the Limit: Marketing Luxury to the New Jet Set.” At the time I was president and editor-in-chief of a magazine distributed on private jets, so we needed data that would be helpful in selling ads, although understanding the reasons rich people buy stuff ended up being a fascinating exercise, something that’s still widely misunderstood.
The research was with private jet users, and from that and more than a dozen others studies, we were able to roughly calculate at the time, on average, the occupants of a private jet spent $69,000 when they visited someplace, not including airport services, such as fuel, landing fees, and catering.
While that might sound like a lot of money, with suites and villas costing $2,500 to $20,000 a night, various activities, some spa therapy, a bit of shopping, a fancy private dinner or two on the beach with local musicians, often the spend was quite a bit higher.
In today’s dollars, accounting for inflation, that means each private jet arrival brings over $85,000 into the local economy.
Irresponsibly trying to deter air travel via flight shaming is a threat to the global economy. According to the World Travel & Tourism Council, the industry is responsible for 10% of all jobs around the world and some $8.8 trillion in contributions to local economies far and wide. In places that rely heavily on visitors, as much as half of all jobs are tied to tourism.
Business aviation, as it’s typically referred, is no slouch. In the U.S. alone travel on those private jets brings over $215 billion into the economy annually and is responsible for over one million jobs.
As just one example, Teterboro Airport, exclusively serving private aviation, accounts for nearly 15,000 jobs, pumping $2.3 billion into the local economy each year.
In many cases, private jet access drives economic growth to places with little or no scheduled airline service that otherwise would have been forgotten. Eighty percent of business aircraft are flown into airports in small towns and communities. A single business aircraft can bring a community as much as $2.5 million. Less private flights = Fewer jobs.
Earlier this month I was in Las Vegas attending Virtuoso Travel Week, a confab of over 6,500 industry executives and media involved in luxury travel. Both sustainability and overtourism were headliner subjects.
The group of media there regularly covers luxury travel, so I was surprised when a fellow journo prior to a presentation on overtourism aked me if I was going to help out by urging my readers to ground their jets.
Though rich people spend exponentially more than backpackers and budget travelers, and while their money is generally welcome, saying too loudly it’s better to have a few wealthy folks and their shiny jets instead of more widebody airliners arriving with budget travelers doesn’t necessarily go over well in this increasingly bifurcated and polarized world. And in fact, travel is a good thing. In general, it promotes understanding in addition to commerce, so I don’t want to imply anyone should stop traveling.
Still, in trying to pair off airline flights against private jet travel, there is that bothersome thing called facts.
The first is that private aviation has been working on green solutions, including sustainable fuel alternatives, and not just recently.
A number of private aviation companies already offer carbon offset programs. Gulfstream Aerospace has been testing sustainable fuels for nearly a decade. This year 23 of 58 private jets that were displayed at a business aviation trade show in Geneva arrived powered by such.
The industry’s trade group, NBAA has said its “stakeholders committed to achieving carbon-neutral growth in international emissions by 2020, and a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 2005 levels by 2050.”
Victor, a U.K.-based charter broker selling air travel globally, recently introduced what may be the industry’s most comprehensive carbon offset program with 200% carbon credits for every flight.
“According to The Crowther Lab, there is enough room in the world’s existing parks, forests, and abandoned land to plant 1.2 trillion additional trees, which would have the CO2 storage capacity to cancel out a decade of carbon dioxide emissions,” Victor founder and CEO Clive Jackson told me. He added, “We offer full transparency over the nature-based solutions funded through our double carbon offsetting, supporting UN REDD+ projects to prevent deforestation which have passed the highest levels of scrutiny. In July alone, we offset 4,000 tonnes of CO2 which equates to protecting tree cover 1.8 times the size of (New York’s) Central Park.”
It’s a move I hope more follow, but I also hope it isn’t seen as a make-good for doing something wrong, namely flying by private jet.
I promised some facts that might paint a broader picture of how private jet travel can actually be beneficial to the overall ecosystem.
Last year Berlin attracted 13.5 million visitors with an average spend of $227 per person, perhaps less than you assumed. In other words, a full Boeing 737-800 carrying 150 passengers brings and leaves behind $34,050.
If the flights to and from the German capital were about three hours each way, the commercial airliner would have emitted about 149 tonnes of CO2, according to data from RocketRoute, flight planning software that Victor uses to calculate emissions on any aircraft for its offset program.
At the same time, a Cessna Citation XLS, a midsize private jet that seats seven or eight people, making the same roundtrip would have emitted 12.52 tonnes of CO2.
With a spend of $85,000, it would mean those often ridiculed private fliers would have brought 250% more revenue to the local economy while emitting less than one-tenth the CO2 of a full passenger jet.
Okay, you want someplace more expensive.
Last year the nearly 38 million international visitors to Great Britain spent an average of $730 at the current exchange rate. On the same 737, it would mean $109,500 in economic contribution, so about 24% more economic benefit than our single midsize jet, however, at nearly 900% more carbon emissions. Two private jets would bring $170,000 in spending, 55% more than the full 737, with just over 25 tonnes of CO2 emitted, one-sixth of the commercial airliner.
And all this is without the wear and tear 20 or 30 times more people put on local infrastructure compared to five or six from our private jet.
If you’ve read this far and are looking for a counter-argument, you might say, “Why don’t the rich folks just hop aboard an airline flight like the rest of us?” They could still spend the same money on expansive suites, VIP tour guides, fine dining, clubbing, and so forth once they get to Berlin or Britain, right?
As Elton John discussed, in some cases, there are issues of security and safety, however, generally speaking, the reason people who can afford to fly privately is the same reason you hop in your private car instead of taking a bus that makes 20 stops – time and convenience.
Most private fliers spend the money not to clink champagne glasses – typical catering is fruits plates and cold sandwiches – but because they wouldn’t have been able to take the trip without the convenience of flying privately.
While flying times are similar, on shorter flights, using private terminals often cuts total travel time by half, so in fact, it’s not a one-to-one tradeoff.
Using more convenient airports also makes the journey quicker and cuts emissions on the ground. In fact, most private flights use different airports where they can taxi on and off the runway faster, burning less fuel that sitting in a long line waiting to get airborne.
If you could only take the bus, including the time spent walking to and from the bus stop, there would be trips you simply wouldn’t make. But often you just want to take the trip, and you can afford to drive, so you drive. I wrote the headline for you: “Scandal: ‘Green’ Smith Family Seen Driving Car To Beach Saturday Morning.”
While in some cases the subjects of media bashing deserve it, using private jet travel as a synonym for waste is incorrect. The facts simply don’t support the headlines. Moreover, by creating red herring headlines and stories that merely generate website clicks, it whitewashes what can and should be done, such as the efforts by Gulfstream, Victor, and others.
Just the other day in The Independent I read one of the few and only articles in widely dispersed media that deals with the subject in a somewhat balanced way without the classic class warfare approach.
Helen Coffey works through similar numbers as I do, and explains at the end of the day, the best way to reduce carbon emissions is to hitchhike or ride along on a cargo ship since in cases both your mode of transport was making the journey anyway.
As in this article, she takes the time to note that a private jet produces significantly fewer emissions than a commercial airliner, but without taking into account the economic impact in total of the occupants of each type, she isn’t able to reach the same conclusions as I do.
By the way, companies like Wheels Up, XO, and Jet Linx Aviation have introduced jet sharing programs so private fliers can carpool. In fact, fractional ownership of private jets and private charters led the sharing economy before it was called the sharing economy. The private jet charter market is in fact driven by owners of private jets allowing their aircraft to be used by others when they aren’t flying in them. The fractional model enables up to 16 different people to share a single jet.
Those who have more, need to do more.
Victor’s enhanced program revealed just last month includes a minimum 200% carbon offsets for every trip at a cost of approximately 0.3% of the cost of a booking. Clients who wish to pay to offset a higher amount can do so.
I have no problem mandating carbon offsets for private jet flights if that, in fact, is the best approach. Not all carbon offsets deliver incremental reductions. If your budget is so tight, you can’t afford to pay for offsetting, then maybe consider alternatives.
I’ll concede, in terms of look, it might have been better for Google to hold its conference in Sacramento, although that might have meant a longer trip and more emissions for many attendees who were already vacationing in the Med.
Villanizing private aviation and those who use it does nothing to solve the global warming, and in fact, ignores the benefits users bring to the places they visit, and the impact on those who benefit economically.