High Flyers – The Cost of Private Jets for the Rest of Us

There is perhaps no greater symbol for our current age of extreme wealth, inequality, and environmental devastation than private jets.

Earlier this month, the Patriotic Millionaires co-released a report – High Flyers 2023: How Ultra-Rich Private Jet Travel Costs the Rest of Us and Burns Up Our Planet – with the Institute for Policy Studies about the negative impacts of the private jet industry on both our economy and our environment. The report lays out how private jet owners freeload off the taxes paid by commercial air passengers and create massive amounts of carbon emissions, and it attracted an enormous amount of media attention from high profile outlets like The GuardianPOLITICOBusiness InsiderFortuneThe New RepublicTIME, and The New York Times.

If you’re interested, you can read the full report HERE, but for your convenience, we wanted to use today’s Closer Look to list out some of the report’s key findings:

  • The private aviation sector suffered setbacks during the pandemic, but operations rebounded in spectacular fashion. Today, there are more private flights in the US than at any point in history – in 2022 alone, there was a record total of 5.3 million private flights.
  • Similarly, demand for private jet ownership slumped during the pandemic, but quickly recovered. In 2022, the industry reaped a record $34.1 billion in transactions. The fleet of private jets is now estimated to be 23,133, marking a 133% increase from the year 2000.
  • Private jets are very expensive, so naturally the small minority of people that have the unique privilege of owning one are very wealthy. The median net worth of people who own their own private jet is $190 million, and it’s $140 million for people who co-own a private jet with other individuals. The typical owner is also male, over the age of 50, and involved in banking, finance, or real estate.
  • The damage to the environment that private jets cause far outweighs their size. While private jets are responsible for only 4% of carbon emissions from aviation, the people who fly private do disproportionate damage to the environment – emitting ten times more pollutants per passenger – compared to those who fly commercial. Also, since the pandemic, there has been a 23% increase in carbon emissions from private jets because of the post-pandemic surge in demand for private air travel.
  • Elon Musk is the worst private jet offender. In 2022, he purchased a new $78 million private jet, took no fewer than 171 flights, and produced an astounding 2,112 tons of carbon emissions.
  • Private jets make up approximately 1 out of every 6 flights handled by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), but contribute just 2% of the taxes that go to the trust fund that predominantly funds the agency. The majority of the FAA’s funding comes from commercial airline passengers, who pay a 7.5% tax on the price of their tickets and a passenger facility charge of up to $4.50. Meanwhile, private flyers only pay fuel surcharge taxes, which are roughly $0.22 per gallon of jet fuel.
  • The vast majority of airports (3000) in the US are publicly-funded general airports; when the wealthy take to the skies, however, these are the airports they typically use, for what’s almost a free ride. Because private flyers contribute so little in aviation taxes that fund airports and air traffic control services, this effectively means that the broader public subsidizes the luxury air travel of the ultra-wealthy.
  • It’s no accident that private jet owners pay so little in taxes. Since 2008, the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) – one of the largest trade associations representing the private jet industry – has spent an average $2.4 million each year lobbying the federal government, mostly for tax relief. The NBAA spent $4 million lobbying in favor of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which gave the private jet industry a huge bonus depreciation tax break. Private jet companies also received more than $643 million in federal COVID-relief aid, thanks in large part to their lobbying arm.

The report ends by suggesting several measures that lawmakers can take to disincentivize the use of private jets, curb their devastating impact on the environment, and ensure owners pay their fair share in aviation taxes. Here are some of the key recommendations:

  • Implement a 10% and 5% sales tax on all preowned private aircraft and new private aircraft, respectively
  • Levy an additional jet fuel tax on private flyers
  • Institute a “short hop” surcharge on private flights less than 210 miles
  • Resist efforts to increase passenger facility charges until private jet owners pay their fair share
  • Create a sustainable transportation equity trust fund

Our Vice-Chair, Stephen Prince, owns a private jet – for now. After reading our report and learning just how bad his frequent private flying was for the environment, Stephen has decided to sell his jet.

In an interview with The New York Times about his decision, Stephen said, “You don’t need a whole spoonful of private aircraft to find out what it tastes like – it’s pretty amazing. [But flying private is] probably one of the most greedy, selfish things I’ve ever done in my life. I just can’t continue to do it.”

We commend Stephen for his decision and hope that other wealthy private flyers follow his example. Until then, however, the least that they can do to compensate for the disproportionate harm they wreak on the planet is to pay their rightful share in taxes.

Related Posts