Why the focus on private aviation? Climate groups increasingly turn the spotlight on private jets

By Dirk Singer / February 21, 2023

Last week, Extinction Rebellion, Scientist Rebellion and other climate groups staged Valentine’s Day protests at private jet facilities in a number of countries. This included the USA, UK, Belgium, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Netherlands, Italy and Spain.

Largely these involved blocking the entrances to the terminals. For example, the action at London Luton’s Airport saw passengers having to get out of their cars and walk for the final stretch.

Why the focus on private aviation?

This is only the latest in a series of protests aimed at private aviation.

  • The previous week, activists from ‘Fossil Free London’ gate crashed the Corporate Jet Investor Conference – at the exact moment when delegates were discussing climate change activism.
  • Then in November, there was another international day of action from Greenpeace and Extinction Rebellion, which among other things saw NASA scientist (and climate change activist) Peter Kalmus chain himself to the doors of the private jet terminal at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport.
  • Meanwhile at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, police chased activists around for six hours, while they prevented private jets from leaving.

Why the focus on private aviation?

Looking at it from the perspective of climate change groups, it makes a lot of sense. It’s an issue that doesn’t directly affect (and so inconvenience) 99% of the travelling public.

Private aviation is also associated in the public and media mind with excessive wealth, thanks to a string of articles over the Summer about celebrities and their jets.

To take one example, Kim Kardashian was branded a “climate criminal” for allegedly taking some very short private jet flights.

There were also claims that Taylor Swift’s private jet was in the air for almost 23,000 minutes last year, with an average flight time of just 80 minutes. That claim about Taylor Swift then resulted in pieces in Time Magazine, Forbes, Los Angeles and Buzz Feed, just to give a few examples. (Note that Taylor Swift denies the charges of excessive flying, saying that her aircraft is often loaned out).

More recently, the media published maps of all the private jets flying out of Arizona after the Super Bowl. Another well-publicised chart showed private jet emissions by the super rich, with (for example) the Murdoch family emitting 4357 tonnes per year via their own aircraft, compared to an annual carbon footprint of 15.52 tonnes for the average American.

Climate Jets

What do climate change groups hope to achieve by this?

A clue is in an interview Swiss anti private jet campaigner Mario Huber gave to Vice Media. Vice reported Huber as saying that “arguing for the banishment of private jets is a powerful symbolic issue.”

Banning private jets almost certainly won’t happen, but using them as the focus of the argument is a way to shift the debate about aviation as a whole.

As we mentioned earlier, private jets (and their users) already have an image problem, and by making them the focus, there’s an opportunity for other arguments to be introduced.

The groups who took part in the February 14th protests, in fact, had two follow-on demands beyond banning private jets. These signify what they really want – frequent flyer taxes and a cut in aviation (see our piece on frequent flyer taxes).

A laboratory for sustainable aviation?

Turning back to private aviation, how should the sector respond?

Most people who fly by private jet by and large obviously don’t fly based on price, and so there is an argument that private aviation could become a laboratory for sustainable aviation.

Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) can be introduced to an audience that can afford it earlier than most travellers, and in fact at the end of last year, Gulfstream announced that it was the first private jet manufacturer to operate a flight on 100% SAF.

Then the small size of private jets makes electric aviation a possibility. Eviation’s Alice is one example of an aircraft that will have an executive version when it enters service in 2027 (alongside a nine-seat commuter and cargo version).

Why the focus on private aviation?
Image Source: Eviation

Finally, when challenged on his private jet use, Microsoft and (cleantech fund) Breakthrough Energy founder Bill Gates pointed to the fact that he buys carbon storage credits at $600 per Co2 tonne from direct air capture company Climeworks.

Again, offsetting via carbon capture and storage is a possible solution for private jet customers, who then become early adopters of this technology before it becomes affordable on a bigger scale.

In summary though, it’s only February, and we’ve now had a number of anti private jet protests. As a result, we can expect to see many more in 2023, and the industry needs to come up with an effective response to these.

Want to know more?

  • Take a look at our greenwashing report.
  • Recently we interviewed ten airline sustainability leaders to find out what they are doing. Those interviews include a number of valuable insights on aviation’s road to net zero.
  • Finally, we sometimes get the question of why aviation is being targeted, when other industries account for greenhouse gas emissions. We’ve tried to answer this in an in-depth article.
  • More aviation specific sustainability updates and analysis can be found in our weekly newsletter. Subscribe to stay on top of the latest trends.

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