The Pandemic Is Sanitizing the Image of Private Travel

Some consumers are prioritizing virus safety over their carbon footprint.
Ashwin Rodrigues
Brooklyn, United States
September 25, 2020, 1:14pm
Gulfstream jet plane in air
Photo via Getty

It’s time to wake up. On Global Day of Climate Action, VICE Media Group is solely telling stories about our current climate crisis. Click here to meet young climate leaders from around the globe and learn how you can take action.

In 2018, on "Sicko Mode," Drake rapped about how wealth had widened his travel options: back in high school, he used to bus it to the dance. But now, he "hit the FBO with duffels in my hands." He wasn't the only famous musician in the habit of making references to the fixed base operator, the terminal for private jets. A year later, on "Walk Like Kings," Third Eye Blind complained about the Gulfstream G550 cabin being "kinda narrow," advising the listener to "skip the FBO" in favor of going to a hotel instead.

Even though private jet travel has long come under scrutiny as an extravagance with a particularly big cost for the environment, in the age of the pandemic, companies are working to make this upper-crust experience more affordable and attractive, offering semi-private flights and concierge services to a new wave of customers looking for a safer way to fly.

According to a July article by New York Times, customers who ordinarily might never think to fly private are shelling out extra for private or semi-private flights so they can practice social distancing in the air. Citing a 5 percent year-over-year increase in private jet travel on the fourth of July this year, according to Private Jet Card Comparisons, the article frames the proposition as one of cost. "Afraid of Airlines? There’s Always the Private Jet," the headline asks and answers. "The catch, of course, is the price." There is no mention of climate, pollution, or carbon footprints. But there are deals, the article explains, such as one semi-private flight on JSX, which offers from Phoenix to San Francisco, for $159.

A Washington Post story from May makes another pitch for the PJ: "The world of private travel offers social distancing in the sky—at a premium." The article only uses the word "environment" in describing the private jet travel's atmosphere of exclusivity: these planes, the article says, are ideal for shooting music videos before takeoff. It also mentions JSX, touting fares as cheap as $89.

While the democratization of the private jet in the age of coronavirus is surely an attractive prospect to some customers, environmental activists and academics worry that a turn to private aviation will come with severe costs to the environment.

According to Stefan Gössling, a professor at Linnaeus University, School of Business and Economics in Sweden, the latest trend in air travel is a reflection of a society that's experienced a reprioritization of needs. Before the pandemic, in part due to Greta Thunberg's condemnation of the practice, Gossling notes, there was a shift in the perception of air travel. "We saw these major shifts from frequent fliers being seen as an adorable type of person to 'Oh, you're actually destroying the climate,'" he said. In an extreme example, actor Yael Stone vowed to give up her green card to the United States and stop living between Australia and the US, pointing to Greta Thunberg as the inspiration.

But even if public awareness of climate change is higher than it's ever been, in 2020, it's taken a backburner to a much more present threat right now: the coronavirus.

Per Gössling, this is understandable: "When you experience something like existential fear, what you do is withdraw into your personal fortress," Gössling said. "The big societal problems are no longer yours. It's a matter of survival." But this necessary self-centeredness, taken to the extreme, can also verge on reckless selfishness: As the New York Times reported, thousands of people have taken flights "to nowhere," taking part in a pointless and ecologically harmful act because they miss relieving themselves 25,000 feet above Earth.

Climate activists acknowledge that there may be safety advantages to flying private, even if they're only available to those who can afford the price of admission. And even though some companies offer environmentally conscious features like carbon offsetting or sustainable fuel, they might be ethically better off opting out.

"Estimates vary, but it’s clear that private air travel produces much higher per capita CO2 emission than commercial flights, possibly ten times higher." The rise in private air travel is also another example of the vast carbon inequality on our planet," said Claudio Magliulo from the 350.org, an organization focused on fighting climate change, in a statement to VICE.

The Re-Earth Initiative, a youth-led international NGO, also said that private air travel might be safer for travelers, it also puts the safety of our planet at risk.

"[Ultimately] we feel the aviation industry is one of the most harmful to climate change, therefore our organisation cannot support the rise of private air travel. Private flyers should be encouraged to do carbon offsetting, but that is not enough," its statement to VICE said.

While the disproportionately high carbon footprint per passenger for private travel is well-documented—partly owing to the fact that the study of air travel and disease spread is extremely new—scientists have yet to confirm whether private is actually safer. the biological safety versus commercial is not.

Dr. Howie Weiss and Dr. Vicki Hertzberg led one of the first studies to determine how diseases spread on transcontinental flights in 2018. Though Dr. Hertzberg testified on issues related to air travel during the pandemic in front of the House Committee of Science, Space and Technology earlier this summer, she did not mention private air travel. Speaking with VICE, Dr. Weiss said the two have been trying to secure funding to do further research on how aerosols—or the "smallest virus-carrying particles"—spread in plane cabins.

He said that there is reason to believe flying private is safer from a disease transmission perspective, noting that there are fewer passengers and crew members, and that if passengers are spaced farther apart, there will be less chance of a passenger generating infectious aerosols from farther away." For commercial airliners, he said, the rapid exchange of air in the cabin should eliminate aerosols quickly. "On the other hand, in 2003, twenty passengers and crew were infected during a three hour flight by a passenger [infected] with SARS. Many of these infections are believed to be transmitted via aerosols," Weiss said.

Until we have more information on how the virus travels on planes, Weiss offered a few tips for those who have to travel—whether they are flying private or commercial. Wear your mask—properly—and don't take it off in the lavatory. He also recommended eye protection, and sanitizing your hands after touching any surface. He encourages travelers to check that passengers near them are wearing masks properly, and socially distancing at the airport.

A renewed interest in private air travel reflects an overall broadening of inequality, in both income and emissions. A study published by Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute earlier this month, for example, found that the richest 1 percent emits more than twice the amount of carbon emissions than the poorer half of all people on the planet.

"We're drifting into a world that's made for a very tiny share of humanity," Gössling said. "There's been so much research now on global inequality, and that's not just wealth distributions, it's in terms of transportation systems, it all essentially comes down to the same conclusion: it's not a socially just development that we are witnessing."

ClimateUprise_Button.png