All this has been clear for some time now. Nearly a decade ago, one look at the private jet phenomenon — a report from the Institute for Policy Studies and Essential Action — concluded that private jets rank as one of the world’s “most powerful symbols of extreme inequality.”
For the general public, the report pointed out, flying has become “costly, uncomfortable, and degrading.” For the rich, private jets provide an oasis of luxury — at the expense of the environment and the rest of the flying public.
That oasis keeps expanding. The United States had about 1,000 private jets in service in 1970. That number passed 10,000 in 2006, right before the Great Recession, and is now hovering near 13,000. How ingrained into the daily life of America’s rich — and those who do their bidding — have private jets become? Deep pockets today simply can’t imagine getting about in anything but a private aircraft, as we’ve seen in the growing private-jet travel scandal that’s already ensnared three top officials in the Donald Trump administration.
But we have another, perhaps deeper reason to feel horrified by private jets. These luxury aircraft remind us how high a price we pay, as a society, for tolerating grand concentrations of private wealth.
Consider, for instance, the reality of transportation in the contemporary United States. We have a terrible mess on our hands. Overcrowded roads and long commutes. Crumbling bridges. Unsafe subway systems.
Rich people don’t have to grapple with these problems. They can fly over them — in plush Gulfstreams. Soaring in the skies, these affluents feel no particular pressure to contribute to systemic solutions. Indeed, the private jets they’ve chosen as their personal “solutions” make our overall transportation problems worse.
These private jets divert resources and talent that could be delivering more sustainable approaches to moving the general public to the production and marketing of ever more luxurious transports designed exclusively for deep pockets.
Can we ground these jets? Sure. We just have to beat inequality first.
Sam Pizzigati, an Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow, co-edits Inequality.org. His latest book — The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970 — traces how average Americans ended the nation’s original Gilded Age. Follow him at @Too_Much_Online.