The private jet industry enjoyed explosive growth in popularity during the pandemic, providing incredible convenience to those who could afford it. But that very popularity put it in the crosshairs of climate activists. Private jets are under attack.
Protests against private jet aircraft, their operators and of course their wealthy customers took place at airports around the world on Thursday, November 10. According to NBC, climate activists in 13 countries protested private jets on that day, some chaining themselves to airport fences. At least 15 were arrested.
Why private jets? NBC, sounding more like an advocate than a news organization, claimed, “The activists targeted private jets because they represent the contributions of the ultrarich — and their lifestyles — to global greenhouse gas emissions.”
The protestors got little traction in U.S. media. Anti-oil protestors gluing themselves to art masterpieces seem to have taken their oxygen.
Nonetheless, private jets, regarded as a toy of the rich, have become a target of the “billionaire’s tears” crowd. A single billionaire produces a million times more emissions than an average person, an Oxfam study claims.
Meanwhile, “let them eat cake” comments like “Your jet or mine” and a 17-minute flight by a Kardashian burning a pointless hole in the atmosphere have done the industry no favors.
We asked executives of three private jet companies for comments. But no one stepped forward to defend the industry, estimated at $27.54 billion in 2019. It provided 2.15 million private charters in 2020, often when commercial planes were grounded by COVID. In an era of shortages, the private jet industry is a pipeline for commercial pilots, and 15,500 of the 22,000 business jets worldwide are in North America.
Yet both the industry and celebrity jet owners like Ophrah Winfrey, John Travolta, Jackie Chan and Jay-Z remained silent. Scientist Rebellion member Gianluca Grimalda said “It is obscene that Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates can fly their private jets tax-free, while global communities starve.” Few celebrities want to be branded “climate criminals,” especially in the face of ‘eat the rich’ rhetoric.
Anti-jet protests were held around the U.S and in Milan, Stockholm, Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam and two London airports. In the U.S., anti-private jet protests took place at New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport, LA’s Van Nuys Airport popular with celebrities, Seattle’s Boeing Field, and Wilson Air Terminal at Charlotte International Airport.
Activist groups Extinction Rebellion, Scientist Rebellion and Guardian Rebellion were among those behind the protests. In 2019, Extinction Rebellion planned to shut down London’s Heathrow Airport with drones. That year they blocked the entrances of Britain’s biggest private airport, Farnborough, site of one of the world’s most popular airshows. Also in 2019, the first draft of the U.S. Green New Deal proposed banning airliners in favor of trains.
This year, at Van Nuys Airport, a handful of protestors showed up with signs. “Make polluters pay,” read one. “Ban private jets,” read another. Another protestor held a cut-out of a jet with the catch-phrase “Private jets are 10x more Carbon Intensive than commercial planes.” Others chained themselves to a fence.
The NIMBYs in my neighborhood in the Van Nuys flight path would probably provide moral support, as they constantly complain about aircraft noise and pollution.
“The rich are burning down the planet and the damage is irreversible,” said climate scientist Peter Kalmus, who was arrested at the Charlotte protest. “We must stop them. Banning private jets would be a start.”
If it weren’t for the nature of the rhetoric, it would be easy to joke that the ultimate goal of such protests is to force the rich to fly commercial. Perhaps proper punishment for private jet customers would be to force them to fly economy, an alternative the late Prince Philip described as “ghastly.”
But the stakes are much higher. Private jets, which can emit up to 2 tons of CO2 in an hour flight, are uniquely vulnerable to attacks as ‘climate destroyers.’ Alternative sources of power are perhaps five to ten years away, while Sustainable Aviation Fuel with lower environmental impact currently costs eight times as much as kerosene.
Meanwhile, young jet-set celebrities like Taylor Swift, #1 on a list of private jet emissions, and Kylie Jenner, with a 17-minute flight from Camarillo to Van Nuys, do the private jet industry no favors.
How effective will protests be at crippling the $28 billion private jet industry? Hard to say. But just one person, Greta Thunberg, successfully demonized European use of natural gas and nuclear power, driving up energy costs across the continent.
In the U.S., California Governor Gavin Newsom banned the sale of gasoline powered vehicles by 2035. Meanwhile the state limited oil drilling, put restrictions on refineries, and raised the gasoline tax to over $1.50 per gallon, resulting in gas prices that remain the highest in the U.S. at almost $6 per gallon.
Will the protestors succeed? In the short term, unlikely. They are taking on an industry beloved by the rich and powerful. And who has the power to “ban” private jets?
But the rumble could turn into a roar. A state like California could easily decide to lower acceptable noise and carbon levels for private aircraft. Like it or not, the aviation industry must learn how to make the case for its own existence.
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