Flying Private Is Taking Off Due to Pandemic and Airport Pandemonium

It has a huge carbon footprint—10 to 14 times as high as a regular flight.

Dogs getting on jet

Istock / Getty Images

Trigger Warning: Whenever I show my favorite stock photo of puppies flying private, it means this will be yet another story about the outsized carbon footprint of the superrich. Except this one is actually about flying private, and in an example of trickle-down theory, it is no longer just the superrich doing it. The business is flying high because the very, very rich are doing it more than ever.

According to Robb Report, private jet charters could increase more than 50% this year. There are many reasons. As one convert told the BBC, "Flying private means our family is able to avoid the airport security experience, airport crowds, flight rage, and being surrounded by people who often won't mask properly."

According to aviation consultant WingX, "Business jets flew 3.3 million flights worldwide in 2021, the most on record for a single year and 7 percent more than the previous high point in 2019." And these are not particularly worried about their carbon footprint. One study of aviation found that "some individual users of private aircraft can contribute to emissions of up to 7,500 metric tons per year," which is the same as 450 average Americans.

Richard Koe, managing director of WingX, notes in his May 2022 report: "Widespread disruption and delay across the scheduled airline network should sustain the momentum in business aviation. Aircraft owners are flying a lot more and there are signs of strong corporate business jet usage.”

This is a problem. In earlier posts, I have been pretty blasé about the superrich because while they are a tasty target, there are not very many of them. After all, it is the richest 10% that emit half the greenhouse gases, the richest 1% that emit 15%, and we are talking here about the richest 0.1% flying in just 22,000 planes, with 15,547 of them in North America.

But that number is growing fast, and they are putting on a lot more air miles. And these are already big numbers:

  • According to one website, American private jets clocked up 2,699,184 flight hours in 2021.
  • A Citation XLS+, a popular plane—let's call it average—burns 210 gallons of jet fuel per hour, giving us 566,828,640 gallons of fuel burned flying private in 2021.
  • According to the Energy Information Agency, jet fuel pumps out 21.5 pounds of carbon dioxide or 9.75 kilograms per gallon burned, totaling 5,526,579 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
Private vs commercial flying

Transport & Environment

A report published last year by Transport & Environment looked at the carbon emissions from private flying in Europe, which is only 13% of the worldwide private jet fleet. The study found that private jets were, on average, 10 times more carbon-intensive than commercial flights:

"Flying a small number of people in fuel inefficient aircraft, which frequently fly empty, will always incur a substantial climate penalty relative to commercial aviation, where thin margins and competition have helped drive relative efficiency gains over the years. These findings underline the challenge that the private jet sector will have to survive in a low-carbon world."
compared to other modes

Transport & Environment

Compared to other transportation modes, the numbers are even more extreme, showing private travel emissions per passenger/kilometer being 52 times that of a European train.

Many justify these flights by saying they are necessary business tools. A Hong Kong-based aviation lawyer told Robb Report that “aircraft are tools of global trade—they can’t fly on fairy dust and neither can the global economy.” But the Transport & Environment report finds that in Europe, most of the flights are billionaires jetting off to Nice for vacations.

"This analysis shows that contrary to the claims of the industry, private aviation is not only used to save time when doing business, but also for rich people to get more quickly to their second homes and holiday destination. Unfortunately, this means that the holiday habits of the richest undermine the efforts made by ordinary people to cut their emissions. Alone, the 1,000 flights between Paris and Nice during the year pollute as much as 40,000 families taking the same holiday with a new combustion engine car."

In the end, the Transport and Environment report has some interesting recommendations:

  1. A ban on all private plane flights running on fossil fuels under 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) by 2030, noting there are techno-fixes on shorter ranges flights such as electric planes, green hydrogen, or e-kerosene.
  2. Until the ban is in place, "a ticket and fuel tax should be imposed on fossil-fuel private jets, scaled with flight distance and aircraft weight, to account for their disproportionate climate impact." They are talking big numbers, at least 3,000 Euros ($3,200).
  3. Flights should be prohibited when alternatives exist that do not increase travel time by more than two and a half hours.

Of course, the vast majority of private flying happens in the U.S., and there are few fast alternatives to get from Teterboro to Palm Beach or Nantucket. But those American flights in 2021 totaling 5,526,579 metric tons are the equivalent of 1,201,430 cars on the road.

We spend so much time talking about electric cars, but 608,000 were sold last year, so a bunch of rich people flying private belched out twice as much carbon dioxide as was saved by every single electric car sold in the year. Perhaps it's time we started talking about the planes.

View Article Sources
  1. Gössling, S. and Humpe, A. "The global scale, distribution and growth of aviation: Implications for climate change." Global Environmental Change,

    vol. 65, 2020. doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2020.102194.

  2. "Twelfth consecutive month of record-breaking global activity for bizav." BlueSky Business Aviation News.

  3. Murphy, Andrew and Valentin Simon. "Private jets: can the super rich supercharge zero-emission aviation?" Transport & Environment, May 2021.