Permission to fly?

This article first appeared in the 2023 Victor Magazine. Click here for complimentary access.

At the time of writing this article (1 October, 2023), one of Elon Musk’s private jets just flew a 1,478-mile flight in California from San Jose to Hawthorne. Roughly 1,475 gallons of jet fuel, costing around $8,261 was used for this flight, releasing circa 16 tons of CO2 emissions.

We know this because a 19-year-old named Jack Sweeney has created an online bot capable of tweeting live updates on celebrity private jet movements. Sweeney’s invention confirms that the practice of scrutinising high-net-worth individuals’ (HNWI) travel habits is no longer confined to the narrow columns of tabloid newspapers, but rather in a far more transparent manner, on a far more influential and global platform. Therefore, it is no surprise that the private jet industry is continuously under the spotlight on social media, with many individuals voicing their concerns about celebrity travel habits.

That the public has taken such an interest in private jets is justified insofar as in some way it is helping to hold heavy polluters to account. Private jets generate a significantly higher amount of carbon emissions per passenger compared to commercial flights, and this is partly due to the fact that approximately 40% of the trips involve ‘empty legs’. 

An empty leg typically occurs when a private jet is chartered to a specific location and doesn’t have any passengers for its return flight – the private jet industry regrettably recognises the negative perception associated with this environmental impact. Unfortunately, for the more climate conscious stakeholders of the sector, the general opulence and unnecessary excess that so many associate with private jets makes it difficult to argue against the constant flow of scrutiny.

Tom Hill, Director of Group Charter at Victor, organises private jet travel for groups of 18 passengers or more, and is therefore well-versed in this particular debate. He explains, “The majority of our business is B2B, with most of our clients using us because their itinerary dictates that they need to. For example, we fly various international football teams and the recent routes we’ve completed include Gibraltar to North Wales and Finland to Kazakhstan. 

These journeys are often impractical, or even impossible, on commercial flights due to schedules and specific requirements.” Hill is keen to point out that the private jet industry is not just caviar and champagne, but instead, it’s about fulfilling a logistical need to get people where they need to be as efficiently and responsibly as possible. Regarding clients concerned about their public image, Hill shares an example of organising a flight for a group of high-ranking US officials from the Middle East to Rwanda. 

“In such cases, security concerns outweigh any potential negative public perception. At the same time, we have other clients that request the least ‘flashy’ aircraft possible, something with a blank exterior that doesn’t exude any hint of opulence; all they want is to get a large group from point A to point B without attracting any attention.”

Since Victor’s market-leading partnership with Neste, the leading supplier of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) in the world, Hill has encouraged clients to consider voluntary SAF purchases as the most efficient option for football teams looking to decarbonise their charter flights. When choosing to buy SAF with Victor, customers receive a certificate which can be used for their Scope 3 carbon emissions reporting, and although some Premier League clubs are considering SAF adoption, a general sense of hesitancy and a lack of initiative persist in the sporting world.

While there are groups who do go the extra mile by purchasing SAF, Hill expresses frustration at the inconsistency in decision-making among prominent sports teams, where eco-friendly gestures such as using reusable plastics are touted alongside decisions to fly on highly polluting aircraft for extensive pre-season tours.

“It is encouraging to see top-tier sports teams make more conscious decisions regarding their choice of aircraft. Whether this is opting to avoid flying on shorter domestic routes or taking a smaller, more fuel-efficient aircraft instead of unnecessarily large, fuel-thirsty planes. These teams have tight schedules, and they must ensure that the teams are transported in the most efficient way to minimise travel time and maximise recovery time. 

Although there is evident interest and discussion on sustainability, concrete actions are yet to materialise. Taking steps to use reusable plastics in stadiums or curbing water consumption are great initiatives, but they are somewhat eclipsed when a team opts to transport their entire delegation, to pre-season tours, on the most environmentally unfriendly aircraft available. I believe that there is a real opportunity for these teams, in the public eye, to lead by example.”

Hill identifies unnecessary domestic private jet travel as a significant source of controversy. He recommends several measures to consider for those looking to fly more sustainably, including opting for fuel-efficient aircraft for domestic flights, considering alternative transportation like trains or coaches, avoiding oversized aircraft, and, of course, buying Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF). 

In the current digital age where social media communities, such as those led by Jack Sweeney, are helping to bring what was previously an abstract topic into a part of the mainstream public debate, it is fair to say that there has never been a more pertinent time for large corporations to reconsider their travel habits. 

Ultimately, there are few options for those who consider private jet travel to be an economic and practical necessity outside of seeking counsel from industry veterans like Tom Hill at Victor. While there are methods to mitigate damage to reputation, users of private jets for large groups would do well to re-frame the discussion and ask a different kind of question. Can we say, hand on heart, that we are willing to be more accountable for our travel habits and do our part when it comes to flying in a more responsible and environmentally conscious manner? 

For more information contact