High Flyers 2023: How Ultra-Rich Private Jet Travel Costs the Rest of Us and Burns Up the Planet
Chuck Collins | Omar Ocampo | Kalena Thomhave
A joint report by the Patriotic Millionaires and the Institute for Policy Studies
Private jets have rightfully earned their reputation as symbols of excess. As society’s wealth has concentrated in fewer hands over the last several decades, there has been an explosion in private jet purchases and travel.
This expensive, carbon-intensive form of travel is bad for both the earth and the taxpayers who subsidize it for the ultra-rich.
Private jet excess has finally come onto the public and political radar, thanks to reporting from groups like Oxfam on the carbon footprint of the billionaire class, as well as online journalism tracking the flight habits of the extremely rich.
Billionaire Elon Musk, to take one example, took one private jet flight about every other day in 2022, producing 2,112 tons of carbon dioxide emissions last year alone. That’s 132 times more than the entire carbon footprint of an average individual in the United States.
That’s why lawmakers in a number of countries are now preparing to levy new taxes on the sale of private aircraft, short flights, and related emissions.
With the industry growing at unprecedented rate, the time is ripe to pass U.S. legislation as well. Taxes on private jet travel would impact only a faction of the world’s wealthiest people, while the revenue raised could be used to ensure we have a more environmentally sustainable planet.
In this report, we assess the environmental, economic, and security risks of private jet travel — and lay out tax reforms to offset them.
Private jets emit at least 10 times more pollutants than commercial planes per passenger.
- Approximately 1 percent of people are believed to be responsible for about half of all aviation carbon emissions.
- In addition, since the start of the pandemic, private jet use has increased by about a fifth and private jet emissions have increased more than 23 percent, according to a recent study.
Private jets make up approximately one out of every six flights handled by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) but contribute just 2 percent of the taxes that make up the trust fund that primarily funds the FAA.
- Instead, the majority (roughly 70 percent) of the tax revenue that makes up the aviation trust fund is financed by passengers purchasing commercial air travel.
- Commercial passengers pay a 7.5 percent tax on the prices of their tickets plus a passenger facility charge of no more than $4.50. Passenger taxes are increasing as flight prices increase.
- Meanwhile, private jet fliers only pay fuel surcharge taxes — roughly $0.22 per gallon of jet fuel.
The median net worth of a full and fractional private jet owner is $190 million and $140 million respectively.
- They represent 0.0008 percent of the global population.
- The jet-owning oligarchy is overwhelmingly male, over the age of 50, and concentrated in the industries of banking, finance, and real estate.
The private jet sector set industry records with regards to transaction and dollar volume in 2021 and 2022.
- The size of the global fleet has increased 133 percent in the last two decades from 9,895 in 2000 to 23,133 in mid-2022.
- This bonanza was accompanied by an unprecedented number of business jet operations, 5.3 million in 2022.
A 10 percent and 5 percent global transfer fee on pre-owned and new private aircraft, respectively, would have raised $2.4 billion in 2021 and $2.6 billion in 2022.
- The size of the private jet market grew from $32.3 billion in 2021 to $34.1 billion in 2022, with the market only set to expand.
Elon Musk would pay an additional $3.94 million in taxes if our recommended transfer fee and jet fuel tax were implemented.
- He is one of the most active high flyers in the United States. He purchased a new jet, took 171 flights, contributed to the consumption of 837,934 liters of jet fuel, and was responsible for 2,112 tons of carbon emissions in 2022.
Thousands of municipal airports in the U.S. are funded by the public, but many primarily serve private and corporate jets.
- These airports may not offer scheduled passenger service, but they still offer airport runways subsidized by taxes.
The largest player in the private jet lobby, the National Business Aviation Association, has spent an average $2.4 million each year since 2008 lobbying the federal government, primarily for tax giveaways.
- During the COVID-19 pandemic, the industry specifically lobbied for Covid relief, particularly “medium to long-term liquidity assistance and relief from air transportation excise taxes,” even though industry demand was quickly climbing.
The wealthy can transfer ownership of their jets to a private trust, obscuring the true ownership of the aircraft.
- In an age where commercial passengers must take off their shoes to be screened and fly, beneficial ownership of aircraft presents a fully legal yet significant security risk.
While sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) have a role to play in reducing aviation emissions, they should not be considered a panacea by the private jet industry.
- SAFs still release emissions, though less than traditional fuels, and they are currently expensive and rarely used.
Private jets’ privileged perks should not be allowed to fly.
For climate reasons, the U.S. needs to pass policies that disincentivize the use of private jets. And to level the playing field between the wealthy who use private jets and the passengers who must use commercial aviation, Congress must require that private jet owners pay their fair share for airspace and airport services.
Lawmakers should consider a number of reforms to fix this broken system.
1. Implement a global transfer tax on all private jets.
We recommend a 10 percent sales tax on all preowned private aircraft and a 5 percent tax on new aircraft transactions.
According to Global Jet Capital, the total dollar volume of preowned and new private jets in 2022 was $19.1 billion and $15 billion, respectively. This is a total of $34.1 billion. Our recommended transfer tax proposal would yield approximately $2.6 billion in revenue for 2022. Elon Musk’s tax obligation would be $3.9 million if this fee was applied to his new $78 million jet purchase.
2. Levy a private jet fuel tax.
The European Union is seeking to meet more than half of its climate goals within the next seven years by finally levying a tax on jet fuels on all intra-EU air travel. The “Fit for 55 Plan” will nearly double the cost of jet fuel and it is currently being discussed by EU member states.
The United States already levies a federal excise tax on general aviation fuels, but an additional duty on private jet fuel consumption can raise funds that can go towards a sustainability fund, reduce unnecessary flights, or encourage the high flyers to consider alternative forms of transportation.
Doubling the federal jet fuel tax from $0.219 per gallon to $0.438 per gallon for the high flyers would be a good place to start. It is a tax that only applies to those who sit at the very top of the wealth distribution.
Musk’s private aircraft consumed 837,934 liters of jet fuel — that is, approximately 221,358 gallons. Our recommended rate would raise about $96,954.80 from his private jet activity last year.
3. Institute a “short hop” surcharge.
The purpose of a short hop tax is to disincentivize private jet owners from taking ridiculously short flights, especially when other transportation options are available. Belgium has begun to lead the way by instituting a €10 duty per passenger on all flights shorter than 310 miles.
Representative Steve Cohen of Tennessee is introducing legislation that seeks to levy an excise tax on the miles traveled by private aircraft. We recommend instituting a “short hop” surcharge on any private jet operation where the distance between the two destinations is less than 210 miles. This is approximately the distance between New York City’s JFK airport to Washington D.C.’s DCA airport.
Any private flight shorter than 210 miles will be subject to a duty and a higher tax rate should be applied to all private flights where the destination is shorter than 100 miles away. Our definition of a “short hop” flight is consistent with the standard established by Belgium, where their tax regime will apply to very short-haul flights.
4. Resist efforts to increase passenger facility charges until private jet owners pay their fair share.
If additional funds are required to upgrade our nation’s airports, additional revenue should come first from the private jet industry, not from increasing costs on ticket prices for ordinary commercial jet flying consumers.
5. Create a sustainable transportation equity trust fund.
The creation of a fund that captures the revenue raised from increased taxes and fees on private jet travel is absolutely necessary. The fund can then direct resources towards sustainable transportation equity projects that would increase light rail, city-to-city rail, cycle tracks and bike lanes, and other non-emission burning transportation infrastructure.
Representative Cohen’s draft legislation establishes a sustainable aviation trust fund upon the bill’s passage.
6. Increase TSA security oversight of private jets.
Eliminate the “self-regulating” features of private jet security with greater TSA oversight of private jet security.
7. Pass the Aircraft Ownership Transparency Act.
The public and law enforcement have a legitimate interest in knowing who are the beneficial owners of private jets. The FAA should have a more complete picture of who owns private aircraft prior to approving a certificate of registration in the United States.
As public scrutiny increases and tax legislation on private aircraft begins to be considered in Congress, the jet-owning oligarchy will seek to obscure and complicate their structures of ownership. The elimination of ownership by anonymous trusts and other entities needs to be a top priority.