Private jets are bad for the climate, but what can normal people do about it?

Four places you can put pressure on a source of frivolous pollution


Since the earliest days of corporate flight after World War II, the use of private jets for all manner of purposes has—pardon the pun—taken off. Mega events like the World Economic Forum and the Super Bowl make headlines for drawing in private aircraft en masse, but there have been significant overall increases the past few years. Aviation research firm Wingx reports that private business flights alone were up 15% globally in 2023 compared with 2019. (In reports like this one, the terms “private jet” and “business jet” are interchangeable.)

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All that traffic generates a lot of potentially avoidable carbon emissions, but there could be a few levers everyday folk can pull to get things in check.

The environmental impact of private jets

A 2021 report by Transport & Environment, a Belgian nongovernmental organization, found that private jets are up to 14 times more polluting than commercial planes on a per-passenger basis, and 50 times more polluting than trains. 

It’s somewhat difficult to pinpoint private aviation’s total worldwide environmental impact. Phillip Ansell, director of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s Center for Sustainable Aviation, notes that we’re still working to understand just how potent other climate-warming aspects unique to air travel are, like contrails and nitrogen oxides. It is, however, easy to imagine just how bad the situation is based on smaller pools of data. Take reporting published by The Guardian last November, for example, which found the flights associated with 300 private jets belonging to just 200 people were responsible for the emissions equivalent of nearly 40,000 Brits. 

And, to further twist the knife, a good chunk of private flights might have no one on them. A 2016 report commissioned by the European Business Aviation Association noted that 41% of all business jet flights were “empty legs,” meaning a jet was chartered to go to a destination but not to take any passengers on its return trip.

What normal people can do about private jets 

Given that most humans aren’t flying private—or even flying at all—the reality is that there is nothing the economy-class citizen can change in their day-to-day travels to directly reduce private aviation emissions. Unlike thrift shopping to avoid buying fast fashion, the non-jet set can’t refuse to board private planes they were never going to use anyway. 

Nonetheless, the public can agitate for change by engaging with their policymakers to push for new regulations. “An aircraft that is built today, they’ll be in the air in 2050,” says Ansell. “The timeline is very long, which is why we really do need immediate action” in the form of civic engagement. That advocacy could look like pushing for new taxes and fees that make it more expensive to fly private. Here are a few areas folks can dig into:

Eliminate short hops

Some corners of the decarbonization world have called for all-out private aviation bans. Transport & Environment, for example, wants European regulators to ban non-hydrogen or non-electric aircraft from flights of less than around 620 miles by 2030. But experts aren’t confident about complete bans, noting there are a variety of legitimate reasons (such as humanitarian missions or a lack of options to otherwise get to some destinations) someone might need to catch a private flight.

“We should probably explore what they’re doing in Europe, which is banning short-hop flights when there are other transportation alternatives,” says Chris Field, director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. France, for example, has banned any flights where the train or bus alternative is a journey of less than 2.5 hours.

Increase private flight taxes and fees… 

Field suggests creating a price-per-gallon tax on jet fuel, as “that’s most directly related to the problem we’re trying to solve.” Unlike gasoline for car drivers, jet fuel is exempt from sales tax, with users instead paying fuel surcharges totaling around $0.22 per gallon, according to the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), a progressive-leaning think tank. (Compare that to the gas tax in Florida, a state well known for its low overall taxation, which was about $0.35 per gallon in 2023.) 

In addition to taxing fuel, Chuck Collins, the inequality and common good program director at IPS, says policymakers can create taxes at the point where aviation fuel is sold by the distributor, known as excise taxes, and require a sales tax on private jets—something that currently doesn’t happen in all states. “We subsidize, as the commercial flying public, all the small private airports, and they pay nowhere near the fair share of their real costs of private aviation,” says Field. He points out that private flying uses 16% of airspace but covers only about 2% of the costs covered by commercial ticket fees, like facility maintenance.

Last year, Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse filed a bill that would’ve tacked new surcharges on private jet travel, as well as first-class and business-class tickets, citing greenhouse gas emissions. No action appears to have been taken since it was referred to a Senate committee that considers environmental legislation.

…and use the revenue for transportation decarbonization 

A new tax model for private flights could go beyond covering the industry’s infrastructure overhead. Field, for instance, sees revenue going toward high-speed bus lanes or train routes to minimize the need for flying, referring to the European intercontinental rail system. 

Pushing for new taxes could also help fund innovations in the sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and electric or hydrogen plane industries, says Omar Ocampo, a researcher at IPS. Neither arena has made much progress toward commercialization, despite publicized goals. For example, in 2007 the International Air Transport Association set a goal to hit 10% SAF usage by 2017; they’re at 0.1%. “There’s a lot of ideas that are floating around in the space that can close this [emissions] gap,” says Ansell. “But it’s a question of how quickly can we responsibly do that?”

Block new airfield projects

Collins says activists could take a page out of the energy decarbonization movement and block the airfield infrastructure needed to facilitate private flights. “In the same way people are saying ‘no new fossil fuel infrastructure should be built,’ well how about ‘no new private jet infrastructure’ as a pressure point?” he says. For instance, he’s currently involved in a movement to stop the expansion of a Massachusetts airfield that reportedly holds the most private jets in New England.