Cancel private jets? Here’s a better idea

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The private jet industry’s “No Planes, No Earnings” campaign emphasizes the productivity and economic benefits of private flying. And judging by the surge in pre-owned jet sales last year and the record number of European private flights this summer, travelers understand the appeal of avoiding commercial travel hell.

Yet whether it’s the muted bluster of Instagram stars or sites tracking billionaire owners like I Fly Bernard (Arnault), business aviation—his go-to nomenclature so as not to dwell too much on all those flights to Ibiza and Sardinia — is losing the PR battle. The problem? Its oversized environmental footprint.

After a summer of drought and searing heat, environmental politicians in France are demanding an outright ban on these planes, which often fly empty and produce many times more emissions per person per kilometer flown than commercial flights.

A ban is unlikely, given that France is home to Airbus SE and Dassault Aviation SA (Falcon aircraft maker); Paris and Nice are also among the busiest European destinations for private jet flights.

Banning private jets could also be counterproductive: many of the technologies needed to decarbonize aviation will first appear in small planes before moving on to large jets. We should let wealthy airmen fund this innovation.

The French government is considering new taxes and regulations on the industry and plans to consult European partners on the matter in the fall. And why not?

Penalizing unnecessary travel and promoting low-carbon aircraft and fuels can help private jet operators retain their frayed social license. And although the industry has committed to net zero emissions by 2050, private flights powered by fossil fuels are expected to end much sooner than on shorter routes.

Admittedly, private jets represent only 0.04% of global emissions, but they have enormous symbolic importance. Governments can hardly incentivize the public to pollute less when the rich do what they want. Those who try to fly as little as possible – and therefore see their friends and family less than they would like – are frustrated when celebrities fly in jets (and summer on thirsty superyachts) as if the climate emergency was irrelevant.

Telling Instagram followers you bought carbon offsets won’t be enough. In the near term, sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), which can be produced from cooking oils, fats or renewable electricity, is the most practical way for industry to clean up.

Although at least twice as expensive as regular jet fuel, the availability of SAF is improving thanks to companies like Neste Oyj in Finland. Innovative “book and claim” programs allow customers to purchase SAF credits even when fuel is not stored at their point of departure. Increasingly, private aviation customers have no excuse not to pay the premium for low carbon fuel.

The European Union has set targets for SAF adoption, and the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act provides tax credits to spur its development. (The mixture of SAF and regular kerosene is limited to 50%, but the industry aims to certify aircraft for 100% SAF)

Electric planes are the other great hope for sustaining private aviation. While not yet a realistic option for transatlantic travel, hybrid and electric planes like those produced by Israeli-American startup Eviation Aircraft Ltd. should make short flights within a few years.

Therefore, where technologically feasible, I believe there should be an earlier phase-out date for fossil-powered private flights, similar to the bans on combustion engine cars by various governments that are expected to come into effect around 2035.

Until zero-emission journeys are a reality, it will be necessary to curb the growth of private flights. A cultural shift already seems to be underway – if you can’t show up on social media or your jet is being followed everywhere, is it worth paying? Financial incentives can also motivate more environmentally friendly choices.

Tax deductions for polluting private planes like those decreed by former President Donald Trump should be scrapped.

Canada’s tax on selected luxury items, which comes into effect next month and adds 10% to the cost of a private jet, is a stark countermeasure. Taxes linked to aircraft efficiency are an improvement and again, the automotive industry can serve as an inspiration: French buyers of the most polluting cars must pay a surcharge of 40,000 euros ($40,300). Why not jets too? (The rate should of course be higher.)

Governments should ensure that private jet flights are included in emissions trading schemes – there are currently exclusions for small operators in the EU.

So far, jet fuel has often gone untouched by tax authorities. From next year, Europe plans to put a fuel tax on all business and leisure travel by private jet, however it only applies to intra-European flights and the rate of the tax is set quite low.

A tax on private jet tickets, scaled according to the weight of the plane and the length of the journey, as proposed by Switzerland in 2020, is also worth considering. Journeys where there are readily available low-carbon alternatives, such as the train, should be penalized the most, if not banned altogether.

Making private flights more expensive won’t change the behavior of billionaires much, but the revenue can at least be used to fund decarbonization efforts. Meanwhile, less affluent passengers might think twice next time before ditching the commercial. Or as the saying goes, “No plane, no shame”.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Are supersonic passenger jets back? Not So Fast: Thomas Black

• Prince Harry shaming is bad news for private jets: Chris Bryant

• Let the supersonic jets soar again: editorial

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Chris Bryant is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies in Europe. Previously, he was a reporter for the Financial Times.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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