High-Flying Free Riders

The private jet is always cast as the ultimate status symbol. Flip through The New Yorker and other upscale magazines, and you are invited to enter the fantasy world of private aviation, where there are no crowds, no long security lines and no boring waits in noisy airport lounges. You can just drive up to the plane (in your limo, of course) and jet to wherever and whenever you want!

The outrageous reality is that private jets are one of the most piggish forms of conspicuous consumption imaginable. The private jet is not only a symbol of extreme privilege and exclusivity, it imposes significant costs on the air travel system, taxpayers, shareholders and the environment.

The facts are all laid out in a report by the Institute for Policy Studies and Essential Action, High Flyers: How Private Jet Travel is Straining the System, Warming the Planet and Costing You Money. The authors are Sarah Anderson, Sam Bollier, John Cavanagh, Chuck Collins and Robert Weissman. (Full disclosure: Sam Bollier is my son.)

Private jet travel has "taken off" over the past forty years — from 1,000 jets in 1970 to over 10,000 in 2006, a number that is expected to double by 2017. For years, the expansion rate of private aviation roughly paralleled that of commercial aviation. Then, in 1997, private aviation took off — a trend that not-so-coincidentally paralleled the worsening of inequality.

Unfortunately, private jets shift significant costs onto the commons, such as the emissions of carbon into the atmosphere. The per-passenger emissions of CO2 while flying in a Cessna Citation X across the country is more than five times those of a commercial air passenger. A private jet also emits 26 times more carbon than four passengers making the same trip in a Toyota Prius.

Taxpayers help subsidize this privileged form of waste. In 2008 lobbyists for private aviation won a “bonus depreciation” provision that allows the owners of private business jets to take much larger tax deductions in the first year after their purchase. And corporate executives who “fly private” for vacations or personal business are allowed to pay personal income taxes as if they had spent the money on ordinary commercial airfares, not for premium private-charter service.

The owners and passengers of private jets are free riders in other significant ways. Commercial aviation pays 95% of air traffic control costs even though it uses only 73% of FAA services — while general aviation (corporate jets, air taxis, recreational pilots) use 16% of the services but pay only 3% of the costs. In addition, a disproportionate amount of the $7 billion spent on airport improvements between 2005 and 2007 went to small airports whose chief users are private jets — Aspen, Colorado; Napa Valley, California; and Pittsfield, Massachusetts, which serves Tanglewood concert-goers.

The Department of Homeland Security considers the proliferation of private jets a security risk, a fear that was borne out when a private-jet owner crashed his plane into an IRS office in Texas last year. But little has been done to tighten security for private aviation.

Worse, the private jet lobby, on behalf of its super-rich users, has obtained special rules that allow private-jet passengers to block public disclosures of their flights. As reported by ProPublica, the national airspace is regarded as a commons because the entire system of air traffic controllers, runways, radar, etc., are paid for or subsidized by taxpayers. All flight data is normally regarded as public information, except for military and other government flights that have security implications.

But private-jet travelers who don’t want their flights disclosed can use the Block Aircraft Registration Request program (BARR) to shield their movements. After the major automakers were criticized for flying their corporate jets to Washington when seeking bailout money from Congress, General Motors availed itself of the BARR program to shield disclosure of its flights, according to ProPublica.

The subsidized popularity of private jets is symptomatic of the extreme economic inequality in our country. It is also symptomatic of the hidden subsidies that we taxpayers pay in order for the super-wealthy to lead the kind of lives they do. It’s silly that taxpayers, shareholders, commercial air travelers and the environment should all pitch in to make life easier for the wealthiest one-tenth of the one percent of the population who are the customary users of private jets. Yet that’s what is happening.

For more on efforts to fight extreme inequality, visit the website for the Working Group on Extreme Inequality.