What’s So Bad About … Private Jets?

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While they account for less than 5% of aviation emissions, private jets still emit more than some small countries.

The “Celebrity Jets” account appeared on Twitter in October of 2021. Using publicly available aircraft transponder data, the account generated travel reports for private jets owned by celebrities and other wealthy people. It included the carbon emissions of each flight. 

The account also generated headlines. Kylie Jenner, a frequent focus of ire, burned almost 5,000 gallons of jet fuel on a single trip to Paris, emitting about 48 tons of CO2. The one-way flight — not counting croissants — emitted more CO2 than what an average household on Martha’s Vineyard emits in a year. According to estimates from Google Flights, that’s almost one hundred times more CO2 than a person flying economy would generate on the same route (croissants not included there, either.) 

More surprising than Jenner’s luxury trip to France was the number of incredibly short flights reported by Celebrity Jets. Some were as short as 12 minutes, merely VIP shuttles between the various enclaves of Los Angeles. Each of these flights burned dozens of gallons of jet fuel, or the CO2 equivalent of about two months of regular driving in a passenger car.

The East Coast has its own fair share of bigwigs making short hops. Just this summer, country music star Kenny Chesney flew his Dassault Falcon from Portsmouth, N.H. to Nantucket (flight time: 26 minutes, CO2 emitted: 2 tons), and filmmaker Steven Spielberg flew his Gulfstream to the Vineyard from New Jersey (flight time: 37 minutes, CO2 emitted: 3 tons). 

Illustration by Kate Feiffer

Although celebrity jets are astonishing in their pollution (some say egregiously so), these flights are a more symbolic than substantive measure of aviation’s carbon liability. For every high-profile jet-setter, there are thousands of fliers who own fractional stakes in a private jet — a kind of timeshare for our gilded age of flight. There are even more who use Jet Cards: prepaid accounts that let you book jets on-demand. A look at the arrivals and departures at the Martha’s Vineyard airport shows many such flights, most of them operated by NetJets, a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway. 

“Most private jets belong to companies like NetJets and not private citizens,” Dr. Joseph B. Sobieralski, a professor at Purdue University’s School of Aviation and Transportation told Bluedot. “Fractional ownership is a growing trend around the world with some operating like ridesharing companies in between reserved passenger movements.” NetJets owns around 800 planes, more than Southwest Airlines

One recent study estimates the private aviation sector as a whole is responsible for about 40 million tons of CO2 each year, about as much as the entire country of Guatemala. This represents roughly 4% of the emissions from aviation overall, but it’s concentrated in an alarmingly small subset of the population. The study in question called individual users of private aircraft “super-emitters” and estimated they were responsible for an average of 7,500 tons of CO2 per person per year. In contrast, the CO2 emitted per capita in the U.S., one of the highest emitting countries in the world, is between 15 and 20 tons a year

The flying public has its own carbon hierarchy. Commercial aviation uses far more jet fuel in total than even the most prolific private flyers. So, even in a world with no luxury jets, we’d still be looking at a plane-shaped hole in the global carbon budget. 

The most frequent flyers — the top 10% or so — are responsible for up to half of all emissions from commercial air travel. Legroom also comes into the equation. The International Council on Clean Transportation blames about a fifth of all emissions from commercial flight on first and business class passengers. Not to mention, only about 4% of people in the world fly at all. 

The flying public has its own carbon hierarchy. Commercial aviation uses far more jet fuel in total than even the most prolific private flyers. So, even in a world with no luxury jets, we’d still be looking at a plane-shaped hole in the global carbon budget.

So, there are commercial jets, private jets, private rent-a-jets, and then a small army of private helicopters, short-commute turboprops, and other small private aircraft. Furthest down the emissions ladder are the island-hopping propeller planes often glimpsed through the fences of small regional airfields. These tiny piston-powered planes are only a small piece of the puzzle. 

“Private jets consume jet fuel (Jet A) as do turboprops, whereas piston-driven prop aircraft consume aviation gasoline, so they have different emissions,” Dr. Sobieralski said. Jet A is a kerosene-based mixture that is one of the most energy-dense fuels available to aircraft. Aviation gasoline, on the other hand, puts some small planes on par with something like a pickup truck. The single-engine Cessna that you might find in a Gary Paulson novel is to a private jet what a golf cart is to a stretch Hummer. And you can imagine which is easier to electrify.

But that’s the problem at hand: how to reduce emissions from flying? Since aircraft have a long lifespan compared to the amount of time we have left to prevent catastrophic global warming, what happens in the aviation industry this decade, and even in the next few years, will shape everything to follow.

The ICAO, the United Nations agency that deals with aviation, recently got its member states to agree to a “long-term aspirational goal” of getting international, cross-border aviation to Net-Zero by 2050 — a nonbinding commitment, but still one that signals willingness to reduce emissions from flying.

There are basically two ways to go about it: make flying more efficient, and fly less. 

First things first: how could planes emit less CO2? It’s a much harder equation than with cars. Airplanes are extremely limited in how much fuel they can carry and still be able to get off the ground so it’s hard to find a substitute for Jet A that packs as much of a punch per pound.

One new model of electric plane, slated to join the Air Canada fleet in 2028, needs five tons of lithium batteries to take 30 passengers a maximum distance of 120 miles. In hybrid mode, with a generator using sustainable aviation mode, it maxes out at 500 miles. 

If those numbers make you question the prospects of an electric 747, you’d be right to wonder. For now, the only chance for planes of that scale is to seek out cleaner fuel. In a paper called Aligning Aviation with the Paris Agreement, The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) concluded that “aviation faces large technical barriers to making a transition to hydrogen or electricity powered airframes, so the industry will probably have to rely on liquid fuels through 2050. That is particularly true for the medium- and long-haul flights that generate two thirds of aviation emissions.”

By blending Jet A with what the industry calls Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAFs), made from corn, seed oils, algae, or even municipal waste, existing jet planes can lower the life cycle emissions of their flight. But the carbon savings in this model all depend on the sustainability of the alternate fuel.

Since aircraft have a long lifespan compared to the amount of time we have left to prevent catastrophic global warming, what happens in the aviation industry this decade, and even in the next few years, will shape everything to follow.

In the long term, the industry is betting on hydrogen, which burns clean, emitting nothing but water. In fact, planes have run on this before — the Soviet Union successfully created and flew the world’s first hydrogen-powered passenger jet, the Tupolev Tu-155, in 1988. A newer design could look like the ‘Flying-V,’ a prototype supported by KLM and Airbus, designed at Delft University in the Netherlands. However, these are further out, and still face stiff technical limitations in safely storing hydrogen and in carrying the amount needed for long flights. The ICCT report only budgets about 5% of emissions reductions for zero emissions planes even in its most optimistic forecast of the aviation industry in 2050. 

Many of the emissions from air transport come from long jet-powered flights for which there is no current feasible alternative. On the other hand, most of the planes landing on Martha’s Vineyard have much more potential for electrification — they make short hops, and they don’t carry many people. The upside for people on the Island, and those at regional airports all over the world, is that they may be the first air travelers to get to net zero. 

Cape Air just signed a deal for 75 electric, nine-seater airplanes from Eviation, a Seattle-based electric aircraft company that aims to have these new designs flying by 2024. These could replace the carrier’s fleet of light, twin-piston Cessna aircraft, for some significant emissions savings depending on the life cycle CO2 of the electric planes’ manufacturing and how they charge their batteries. On the other hand, there’s no immediate substitute for the JetBlue airliners that fly passengers to the Vineyard from Boston and New York.

As for private jetters: efficiency in flight is a question of mass and volume, which means the more cramped you are on a plane, the lower your carbon footprint. (Lest a commercial airline executive read this article, that was an observation, not a suggestion.) For example, Jenner’s jet (a Bombardier BD-700) has a similar cabin size to a 70-person jet (an Embraer E170) that flies Delta’s route from New York to Martha’s Vineyard.

Dr. Sobieralski, who wrote a paper on the booming business of private aviation during COVID-19, thinks that commercial carriers might be more willing to decarbonize. “My guess would be that the greater public visibility of major airlines would induce airlines to be more environmentally conscious than private aviation operators,” he said. “Airlines are also very concerned about fuel usage given that it’s a large share of operating costs. They might have a greater incentive to invest in greener technologies to hedge against future costs.”

So by 2050, the bulk of emissions reduction from flying itself will need to come from more sustainable fuels. But according to the International Energy Agency and others planning for a net zero future of flight, even the most ambitious technical reform of the current fleet won’t keep us at 1.5 degrees Celsius, the target set in the Paris Agreement. Although checked significantly by the pandemic, passenger demand had been growing steadily in the decades before it, and all signs point to a fast rebound — even faster for private jets. 

“New aircraft are up to 20% more efficient than the models they replace, but this has been insufficient to keep up with growing activity,” the International Energy Agency wrote, labeling aviation as “not on track” in meeting international carbon reduction goals. For that, the ICCT reports, we’ll also need either “significant direct curbs to traffic growth” or “out-of-sector action,” meaning carbon capture or offsets. 

The ‘out-of-sector’ actions are tenuous as of now — carbon capture is still a hotly debated technology, and carbon offsets have been troublingly lacking in transparency and effectiveness. The ICAO, the U.N. body which pledged to get aviation to Net-Zero by 2050, relies heavily on a stricter version of carbon offsets to meet this goal. 

That leaves us attempting to curb traffic. Maybe the aviation industry is not thrilled with this option, but it’s something for the rest of us to consider.

As for private jetters: efficiency in flight is a question of mass and volume, which means the more cramped you are on a plane, the lower your carbon footprint. (Lest a commercial airline executive read this article, that was an observation, not a suggestion.)

Of course, the most efficient option is to go by train for longer distances, and by any other means for shorter ones. France, for example, just banned domestic flights to destinations that are otherwise reachable by train or bus in less than 2 ½ hours. 

Sustainable aviation experts have suggested a range of policy solutions to the air traffic problem — in addition to bans, taxes on fuel or on frequent-flying passengers could level things out. As for private jets, Canada has even passed a 10% luxury vehicle tax, intended to penalize the purchase of high-emitting vehicles by wealthy individuals.

Those are the sticks, but there are also carrots, like incentivizing sustainable fuel adoption, investing in research and development of electric and hydrogen technology, and providing low-cost, low-carbon alternatives to flight — like high-speed trains. In a fairly typical dichotomy, the U.S. is pursuing a mostly carrot-based approach, while the E.U. cracks down more heavily in the hope of meeting its net zero promises. These choices are the stuff of politics, and if there’s one lesson in the mind-boggling numbers associated with private jets, it’s that aviation’s carbon footprint won’t be lowered by taking it one economy-class seat at a time.

What You Can Do

•Fly less. Seriously. When time/distance allows, take a train, a bus, a car.

•If you must fly, book economy. First-class generates two to four times the emissions of economy.

•Fly direct, non-stop when possible. Proportionally, more fuel is burned during take-off and landing, making non-stop flights more fuel-efficient. And check out the International Council on Clean Transportation, which can tell you how to book the least emitting flights.

•Fly during the day. Contrails and the cirrus clouds created by planes trap heat and cause warming, but especially at night. During the day, these contrails and clouds reflect sunlight back into space, thereby reducing the impact.•Consider buying offsets, which, while not perfect, can contribute to counterbalancing some of the emissions from flying. Bluedot’s own Dear Dot guides you to the most impactful offset programs.

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Sam Moore
Sam Moore
Sam Moore is a photographer and writer often working in conservation. “I daydream about rowing and sailing a piece of the Maine Island Trail. A human-powered, island-to-island route with camping, birding, and marine mammals along the way.”

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