For several hours in early November 2022, hundreds of protesters grounded all private flights at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, one of the most popular and busiest airports in the world. Activists sat on runways to block private jets from taking off before military police moved in and arrested more than 100 protesters.
“The superrich have got used to polluting as they please with a total disregard for people and planet, and private jets are the pinnacle of these luxury emissions that we simply cannot afford,” one activist told The Intercept.
Fast forward a few months, and the protesters appeared to be on the brink of success. Schiphol Airport decided to implement a total private jet ban in an effort to reduce air traffic.
It would be a small but symbolically important victory in a world where the private jet industry is taking off among the ultra-wealthy. Celebrities like Kylie Jenner, Taylor Swift and Blake Shelton regularly appear in headlines for their profligate private jet use. Billionaire Elon Musk even banned (and later reinstated) a Twitter account that posted the flight and emission details of his private jet activity.
It’s not just celebrities. The Covid-19 pandemic pushed many extremely rich flyers from the first-class cabin of commercial flights towards the convenience and opulence of private jet travel, either by purchasing their own aircrafts or investing in on-demand chartering programs.
As more of the world’s wealthy turn to private jets for travel, they strengthen an industry that contributes to both the climate crisis and ever-widening inequality. The United States will need its own movement to ground this polluting, extravagant and taxpayer-subsidized industry. That can start with levying taxes on private jet use.
The “high flyers” club
Private jet travel is a luxury enjoyed by a small minority of people we call the “high flyers.” The profile of your typical private jet owner is a white male over the age of 50 with a median net worth of $190 million.
In our new report “High Flyers 2023: How Ultra-Rich Private Jet Travel Costs the Rest of Us and Burns Up Our Planet,” we document how current U.S. policy incentivizes the use of private jets via handsome tax benefits to their owners, resulting in dire climate and economic consequences for the rest of us.
For example, the carbon footprint of a passenger on a private aircraft is 10 times greater than that of a traveler on a commercial flight. That’s part of the reason why just 1% of travelers are responsible for about half of all aviation carbon emissions.
As a result, a number of countries are in the process of drafting or implementing legislation that intends to limit private flights. France has even flirted with the idea of a total ban.
Though such outright bans are unlikely, the private jet industry does not want lawmakers to regulate a market that is projected to continue its growth. To deflect climate criticism, the private jet industry now argues that it is perfectly positioned to lead global decarbonization efforts through the investment and development of sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs).
SAFs will be an essential energy source in our transition towards a sustainable future, but they currently come with a hefty price tag and make up an insignificant share of the jet fuel market — a negligible 0.1% in 2021. Limited investment and production of SAFs should signal to lawmakers that markets are failing to achieve the green transition we need for air transport.
Meanwhile, U.S. tax policy is actively incentivizing the purchase of jets.
Because of the 2017 Trump tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, private jet owners who can claim they use their jets for majority business purposes can immediately write off 100% of the cost of the aircraft. And while one in six flights are now private, private jet fliers contribute just 2% of the taxes that help fund the Federal Aviation Agency.
Private jet owners are able to enjoy taxpayer-subsidized luxury jets, fly them in airspace protected with public funds primarily provided by commercial fliers, and land them in taxpayer-funded municipal airports that primarily serve private and corporate jets.
Bringing billionaires back to earth
“If I were queen of the world, I would pass a law against private jets, because they enable you to get around a certain reality,” heiress and activist Abigail Disney told The Cut in 2019.
Disney meant the reality of being a person who has to make some sacrifices for the collective good, whether that’s walking through airport security or paying your fair share of taxes. “I don’t want a private jet because it hollows you out from the inside,” she added.
Yet it can be all too easy for the wealthy to focus on immediate, short-term benefits and for the aviation industry — both commercial and private — to prioritize profits at the expense of a climate breakdown. Therefore, it is unlikely that any market-based strategy to reverse aviation’s culpability in the climate crisis will be successful.
Instead, countries must invest in innovative green infrastructure and progressive air transportation policy.
They can start by levying taxes on short-haul flights, jet fuels, and sales of both new and pre-owned aircraft. A 10% and 5% luxury tax on pre-owned and new private aircrafts, respectively, would have generated $2.6 billion in revenue in 2022 alone. These revenues could be deposited in a fund dedicated to building sustainable transportation infrastructure.
These are efforts that can be taken up by a green movement led by workers and activists. Demonstrations similar to the one held last year in Amsterdam have the potential to put pressure on governments, airports and companies to curtail private air travel.
“We have thought about growth but too little about its impact for too long,” Royal Schiphol Group CEO Ruud Sondag said in a statement after the group moved to ban private flights. “I realize that our choices may have significant implications for the aviation industry, but they are necessary. This shows we mean business.”
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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Kalena Thomhave is a Pittsburgh-based writer and researcher on social policy, poverty, and inequality whose work has appeared in The American Prospect, The Progressive, Capital & Main, Ms. Magazine, The Nation, The Guardian, The Week, Pacific Standard, Quartz, Newsweek, and more.