Taylor Swift got publicly dragged last year when it was revealed that she’s one of the most prolific celebrity public jet users, and with good reason: just four hours of flying on a private jet produces more emissions than the average person living in the EU emits each year. But the Richie Riches polluting the planet with their little jaunts cross-country (and sometimes just cross-city) are also feeding off of U.S. public money, while paying comparatively little themselves, a report out Tuesday from the Institute for Policy Studies and Patriotic Millionaires finds.
The Federal Aviation Administration, airports, and other flight infrastructure are financed by what’s called the Airport & Airway Trust Fund. If you’ve ever bought a plane ticket in the U.S., you’ve helped fund this pot of cash, which stood at $14.80 billion at the end of 2021. Customers pay a fee equivalent to 7.5% of their fare with each ticket, as well as a small passenger facility charge to help with airport infrastructure. As the prices of airline tickets have risen in recent years, thanks to factors like oil prices and inflation, so, too, has that surcharge.
One would think that private flights would be subject to similar fees to help fund the FAA. After all, one out of every six flights the FAA handles are private flights; they’re a significant chunk of what the agency does all day. But, infuriatingly, those private flights are not subject to the same fees that your ticket is—private planes just pay a surcharge on oil, which comes out to about 22 cents per gallon of fuel. Overall, according to the report, private flights end up funding just 2% of the FAA’s trust fund.
There’s even more to be mad about. Incredibly, those private flights are taking advantage of facilities that your ticket fees help pay for. As the report finds, there are thousands of small and municipal airports across the country that serve only or primarily private and corporate flights but include infrastructure, like runways, that are funded by public money. Awesome!
The math here is infuriating, especially when you consider the money lost when not taking advantage of some of the world’s richest people’s pesky travel habits. Noted big-brain Elon Musk, who really does not want you to know where he’s going all the time, took 171 flights in 2022, Bloomberg reported last year, making him the most prolific private jet user in the world. A couple additional fees and taxes on all these activities, the report finds, could have netted almost an additional $4 million in taxes. Implementing those could mean some serious relief on normal people’s ticket fares—or helping airlines transition more smoothly to a lower-carbon form of flying.
This isn’t just a story about the ills of capitalism—it’s also a climate story. The number of people electing to take private jets is ballooning. In Europe, the number of private flights increased threefold between 2020 and 2021, while associated emissions quadrupled; the amount of private flights in the U.S. has doubled since the pandemic. Private arrivals and departures have also begun to fill the gap at smaller airports where public service has been cut back or canceled. The favorite mode of transportation of the elite is becoming more and more popular and is pumping even more emissions into the atmosphere, at just the time when we need to be figuring out how to ratchet those emissions down.
One of the coauthors of the new report is a group designed exclusively for people with a lot of money to advocate for responsibly reining in the out-of-control super-wealthy. Accordingly, many of the solutions the report authors propose work within a framework of curbing the more extreme ends of this problem, like putting a sales tax on private jets, instituting surcharges on smaller flights, levying fees on jet fuel, and increasing access to information on and transparency around private flights and jet ownership.
That all sounds well and good. Frankly, though, forcing billionaires to pay just a little bit more to fly all over tarnation is kind of like putting a Band-Aid on a gaping, fatal wound; $4 million in fees is chump change to a guy like Musk, who can blow $44 billion on a website seemingly to drive it into the ground. Of course, there are alternatives, like banning private jets altogether—a solution that would more than take care of a chunk of those pesky emissions. Just an idea.