Many stories have appeared recently spotlighting celebrities jet-setting around the country and calling them out for the carbon footprint those flights create. While it is tempting to pile on this bandwagon, this recent flight shaming related to the use of small airplanes by prominent public figures has unfortunately overlooked an important truth about the critical role of business aviation in our nation’s economy and transportation system.
It is difficult not to notice prominent people and their private travel habits, but let’s not bash an entire industry for its perceived misuse by a few. The vast majority of those who depend on these aircraft use them because they are often the most effective or most efficient means by which to transport people and goods. Entrepreneurs and companies of all sizes use business airplanes as tools to efficiently reach their customers, suppliers and partners. They use them to transport goods, critical and time-sensitive hardware, lifesaving medical devices, key personnel and more — mostly to and from small communities and rural areas not served by traditional airlines.
Using aircraft as business tools has a direct benefit in terms of jobs and economic impact. In virtually every industry and sector of our economy, business aircraft extend the reach of companies of all sizes, making them more efficient, more productive, and more able to compete in a global economy. The latest data from government sources show that business aviation in the United States supports millions of jobs and creates over $240 billion in economic impact.
In addition, many corporate and private operators generously donate the use of these aircraft to support significant humanitarian efforts and services for local communities. Doctors can get to patients without ready access to Level I trauma centers. Combat-wounded veterans whose medical conditions make airline flights untenable can get to ongoing treatment or home to their families.
In the early months of the pandemic when supply chains were stretched, volunteer pilots helped deliver test kits to areas in need in California, Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee; they transported personal protection equipment (PPE), ventilators and other vital medical supplies to hospitals across the country, especially in rural communities. Angel Flight West, for instance, transported more than 45 tons of PPE and critical medical supplies to community centers in the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, White Mountain Apache and San Juan Paiute reservations. The voluminous examples of these positive impacts far outweigh the myopic emphasis on the carbon footprint of celebrity travel.
Moreover, these recent articles overlook the fact that the industry is making real progress on emissions and sustainability. Over the past decade, the carbon output from these aircraft has decreased by 24%, and today, emissions from business airplanes account for less than 1% of all transportation emissions.
Even in light of this progress, the industry has made a voluntary commitment to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 through the development of sustainable aviation fuels — which can further reduce aircraft emissions by up to 80% — along with investments in electric propulsion, hydrogen power and other technologies.
These new technologies represent not only emissions reductions, but future jobs and economic growth. Aviation transport, like electronic vertical and takeoff and landing aircraft, will open new, carbon-free air transportation options for people in urban, suburban and rural areas. At least one company is set to begin test flights on an electric aircraft by the end of the summer, and many market-based solutions like carbon offsets are now available.
While this is all positive news, there are also real, unintended consequences of the tabloid-esque coverage of celebrity travel with regard to physical security and corporate espionage. No one would suggest that drivers or bus riders give up their privacy and security just because GPS can track our cars and public transportation. Similarly, no one should have to surrender their right to privacy and security just because they board an airplane. But with this newest form of cyberstalking, that’s just what’s happening: Anyone, anywhere in the world, with any motive, can now track and broadcast real-time flight data on the internet, and there can be adverse implications for people’s security.
If this sounds like hyperbole, consider this statistic: The number of reported incidents involving laser-pointing at U.S. airplanes hit a record high in 2021. Flights are being tracked for purposes of corporate espionage. Sensitive missions, like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent trip to Taiwan, are tracked in real time. The examples go on and on, and the point is that technological advances often come with unforeseen outcomes, including when people’s whereabouts are constantly tracked and published online.
These aircraft and airports are a critical element of the nation’s economy and transportation system, with demonstrable momentum toward a net-zero future. It’s unfortunate that all of the recent flight shaming and clickbait reporting is giving our public an incomplete picture of the value of these aircraft and their vital role in linking companies and communities of all sizes around the nation.
• Charles “Lindy” Kirkland is a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel and former president of the Air Care Alliance.