In deeply unequal societies, the rich and powerful never feel the environmental pain.
What a great time to be alive — if you’re sitting on a couple hundred million and have a hankering for your own private jet. Buying a pair of luxury wings has never been more of a bargain. Prices for new and “pre-owned” jets have simply gone “insane,” as aviation analyst Barry Justice puts it.
Gulfstream, for instance, has slashed the $43-million sticker price on the company’s G450 model by 35 percent. Bombardier has discounted the $26-million Challenger 350 by $7 million.
Prices for used jets, meanwhile, have plummeted 16 percent over the past year.
For deep pockets worldwide, says analyst Justice, the bargains have become too good to pass up.
So what should the rest of us think about all this? Should we be paying attention? Should we be at all concerned about how accessible — for the super rich — luxury private jets are becoming?
Actually, we probably ought to be much more than concerned. We ought to be horrified — on two levels.
The first: Luxury private jets may well be the most environmentally destructive means of transportation in the world today.
Aviation overall is degrading the atmosphere at a fearsome rate. If we counted the aviation industry as a nation, the industry would rate as one of our globe’s 10 biggest polluters. Within this polluting industry, private jets — pound for pound — do by far the most polluting. A mere hour’s flight on a private jet, notes science writer Fred Pearce, can “emit more carbon dioxide than most Africans do in a whole year.”
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.