Is it possible to deter Kim Kardashian from burning tons of carbon to fly twenty minutes in her private jet for a lunch date?
The luxury private jet industry not only exploits our planet’s precious resources but makes the rest of us subsidize the extravagant lifestyles of the ultra-rich. Jet excess is a dangerous symptom of extreme wealth inequality. As wealth gets more concentrated in the hands of the global billionaire class, there has been a surge in consumer demand for luxury goods, including private jets. In the last two decades, the private jet fleet has increased by 133 percent, from 9,895 planes in 2000 to 23,133 in mid-2022. These numbers are predicted to surge in the next few years.
On a planet experiencing disruptive climate change, private jet travel is one of the least defensible forms of luxury consumption. Private jets emit ten to twenty times more carbon pollution per passenger than commercial airliners. Short-hop flights are particularly reprehensible since a high percentage of emissions come from take-off.
No wonder billionaire super-investor Warren Buffett named his private jet “The Indefensible.”
Doubling the offense, ordinary taxpayers and the commercial flying public subsidize these luxury high flyers. As our May report from the Institute for Policy Studies, “High Flyers 2023,” documents, private jet customers contribute only a fraction of the national aviation system’s costs. Private aviation accounts for one out of every six flights. But instead of chipping in 16 percent of the cost of running airports and the air traffic infrastructure, these private flyers only pay 2 percent of the fees. And the 2017 Trump tax cuts greatly increased the tax breaks that billionaires receive for purchasing and operating private jets.
To reduce carbon emissions in the aviation sector, we should steeply tax private jet travel and direct those funds toward climate mitigation and green infrastructure.
A new bill introduced by U.S. Senator Ed Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, the Fueling Alternative Transportation with a Carbon Aviation Tax Act of 2023, would do precisely this. Markey’s plan to increase the excise tax on private jet fuel would generate more than $1.8 billion annually for transit alternatives. It would increase the excise tax on jet fuel from twenty-two cents per gallon to $1.95, effectively adding $200 per ton of carbon emitted.
Some high flyers, unwilling to give up their luxury transit, will pay the higher taxes. For others, it might be a disincentive to fly private. Stephen Prince, of the pro-wealth-tax group Patriotic Millionaires, recently came out in support of higher taxes on jet fuel and sold his jet for environmental reasons. “I was gobsmacked by the fact that by being so in love with private air travel, I was willing to ignore what a horrible travesty I was perpetrating on the environment and on future generations,” said Prince.
The powerful private jet lobby, representing the wealthiest people on the planet, will complain that Senator Markey’s bill will cause “the sky to fall.” They will do everything in their considerable lobbying power to block such common-sense legislative proposals, as they have for decades.
They will assert that imposing a fuel tax on luxury jets will harm jobs while ignoring the fact that taxing such jets, and investing in transit alternatives, will actually boost employment in the green economy, enhance mobility for millions and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. For example, for decades, the Canadian company Bombardier has demonstrated that the same company that manufactures private jets can also build high-speed rail cars, including many currently used in U.S. cities.
Lately, the private jet lobby has been on the defensive because of its oversized role in contributing to the climate emergency. They tout their movement toward “sustainable aviation fuels,” which is a smoke screen. Such technologies are decades away from scaling up; years we don’t have if we want to shift our global emissions trajectory.
Luxury private jet travelers should pay the real financial and environmental costs of their luxury travel choices. Sen. Markey’s proposed legislation is a smart first step on this path that other lawmakers should embrace.