Will Business Jets Be Banned?

Read a compelling article by BJT’s Jeff Wieand, whose column recently won an award from the American Society of Business Publication Editors.

Like all carbon-based emissions, aircraft fossil-fuel emissions are unquestionably bad for the environment. Burning fossil fuels emits carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere; and as such emissions increase, the world gets hotter. A 1999 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (jointly established by the World Meteorological Organization and the U.N. Environment Program) identified a host of aircraft emissions in addition to carbon dioxide, including water vapor, nitric oxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur oxides, and something called “soot.” According to the report, the release of some of these chemicals at the altitudes flown by aircraft is more detrimental to the atmosphere than equivalent emissions on the ground. 

One way to reduce emissions from jets is to make their engines more efficient so they burn less fuel. Ironically, says the Sierra Club, this has proved counterproductive for the environment. The organization notes that the less fuel the engines burn, the cheaper it is to operate aircraft, and as the cost of air travel goes down, more people buy airline tickets, leading to more flights and rising emissions. According to the Sierra Club, aviation emissions were 70 percent higher last year than in 2005 and could triple by 2050. 

Governments are counteracting cheaper airfares through taxation. To combat climate change, European countries like England and Sweden (and starting this year, France) are charging taxes on flights or air passengers to raise funds to support “eco-friendly” transport. Britain’s tax applies to passengers on flights by aircraft with an authorized take-off weight of more than 6.28 tons (about 12,500 pounds; i.e., “large aircraft” for FAA purposes) or with more than 20 seats. The Washington Post reports that to stop airlines from dodging such taxes by switching the departure jurisdictions, Holland is lobbying the European Union to impose such a tax on flights originating anywhere in the EU. Several bills have also been introduced in the U.S. Congress in an attempt to put a price tag on carbon emissions.

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Only a small fraction of all jet flights involve business jets, and emission by emission business jets are no worse for the environment than airliners. However, the vast majority of business jets have no more than 19 passenger seats, all of which are rarely full, so they carry fewer people and are perceived as contributing more to global warming and other environmental ills on a per-passenger basis. 

As a result, business jets are a growing target for environmental activists. The Guardian recently reported that the British Labour Party is exploring the possibility of banning “private jets” (whatever that means) from U.K. airports beginning in 2025. Andy McDonald, the Labour Party’s so-called shadow transport secretary, was quoted as tweeting that “the multimillionaires & billionaires who travel by private jet are doing profound damage to the climate, and it’s the rest of us who’ll suffer the consequences. A phase-out date for the use of fossil fuel private jets is a sensible proposal.” Why McDonald thinks that the ultrarich won’t share in the consequences of climate change is unclear.

The alternative to trying to ban “private jets” would be to tax or ban travel by aircraft generally. In truth, only a minority of Earth’s inhabitants enjoy such travel: fewer than 18 percent of people on the planet have flown in an aircraft, according to a 2017 article by John Mandyck, the chief sustainability officer at United Technologies. A bill recently filed in the U.S. Congress to ban non-essential helicopter traffic over New York City was rationalized in part by “negative environmental impacts” and the relatively small number of people riding in the helicopters. The ban wasn’t limited to “private” aircraft but applied to all helicopters except those for flights by the police, medevac crews, and similar operators.

Obviously, imposing an across-the-board ban for all aircraft in the U.S. would be difficult. Compared with Sweden or Britain, the U.S. is a big place. Families and businesses are spread out all over the country, and the prospect of taking a train from New York to the West Coast to visit a factory or a grandchild is daunting. Even if you are open to eco-friendly travel alternatives, the U.S. doesn’t have the rail network (let alone a high-speed rail network) that’s available in, say, France or Japan.

While an outright ban in the U.S. seems far-fetched, there is a movement afoot in Europe called “flight shame” that’s designed to make people feel guilty about flying in airplanes. The effort seems to be working in Sweden, where rail travel has apparently surged. To publicize the movement and avoid flying on the airlines, Sweden’s 16-year-old Greta Thunberg has been sailing back and forth across the Atlantic to attend climate-action conferences. However, for flight shame to make a real difference in emissions, it will have to be widely accepted enough to reduce actual flights. At present, it probably doesn’t accomplish much except to produce some empty airline seats.

But resistance to flying is growing. The Sierra Club has called flying “an environmental sin.” France is considering a ban on short-haul flights between airports that are linked by rail, and KLM has launched a campaign called “Fly Responsibly” that asks people to fly less. When the airlines are against flying, you know there’s a problem. The International Air Transport Association’s deadline for carbon-neutral growth is already here, and the UN’s carbon-offset initiative for international aviation (CORSIA), currently in a voluntary phase, is scheduled to become mandatory in 2027, though business aviation will be largely unaffected. 

The issue for business jets is enormous. Already widely perceived as indulgences for rich people and costly extravagances for top executives that corporate shareholders shouldn’t have to pay for, business jets will increasingly be a prime target for environmentalists. The writing is on the wall: without decisive action, business aviation may be the first real casualty of the anti-flying movement. 

To survive, the industry must take the lead in distancing itself from carbon emissions. Short of bans or taxes, there are basically three alternatives. First, carbon-offset programs allow you to offset your aircraft emissions by paying to reduce or compensate for emissions elsewhere (e.g., by planting CO2-eating trees, erecting wind turbines, or providing eco-friendly cooking stoves in the Third World). However, selecting a program you are happy with can be challenging, and a list of CORSIA-approved programs is not yet available. 

Carbon offsets are better than nothing, but you are still burning the carbon. Finding new ways to lower aviation fuel burn will reduce carbon emissions. Ceramic-based paint coating, for example, reduces drag and lowers fuel burn. Lowering fuel burn could lead to lower airline fares and more flights but should be a net gain for business aviation, where the lower cost is not as material.

The best solution, however, may be to switch to lower-carbon, and eventually carbon-free, fuels as soon as possible. Sustainable aviation jet fuel—which is made from blended biomass, oils, waste, etc.—isn’t carbon-free but can result in dramatically lower carbon emissions. Too bad there’s no list of the airports (such as LAX) that offer it. A gradually increasing tax on aviation carbon emissions may provide the funds and market incentive to develop and move us to lower-carbon and carbon-free fuels.