There Needs to Be a Climate Tax for Frequent Fliers and a Tax on Private Jets

Time Magazine, May 2023

By SOLA ZHENG MAY 4, 2023 Zheng is a Researcher of the International Council on Clean Transportation’s aviation program. Her work focuses on the environmental impacts of commercial aviation and related policymaking processes. She currently leads research projects on decarbonization roadmap, aviation climate finance, and flight emissions disclosure.

How many times did you fly in 2019? If you took more than six flights, or three roundtrips, you flew more than 98% of the world population. Consequently, you also contributed much more carbon than all other humans on the planet.

Even if most of the world flies occasionally (or not at all), the emissions from air travel are soaring. Annual number of air passengers is projected to more than double its 2019 level by 2050. And that means even more emissions from air travel if no actions are taken to reduce it.

There are some promising lower-emission aviation technologies, but without policy intervention to promote them, they will be adopted slowly. Earlier this month, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) adopted a 2050 net-zero carbon emissions target for international aviation. This goal marks the first global commitment to tackle aviation emissions, but it comes with an up to $4 trillion dollar price tag, which includes the cost of low-carbon aircraft, fuels, and infrastructure needed to achieve deep cuts in emissions. While the industry needs to invest heavily in these technologies, consumers would likely have to pay higher prices for the greener alternative—think renewable energy and electric vehicles in their early days. Currently, sustainable aviation fuels are 2 to 5 times more expensive than fossil jet fuel. In fact, only about 2% of airline customers have been voluntarily paying extra to offset their flight emissions. But there’s a potential solution: a mandatory climate tax.

A conventional carbon tax (fixed price per tons of CO2 emitted) would raise the cost of flying across the board and potentially price out travelers with low income, many of whom may have never flown before.

Globally, the unequal access to air travel is extreme. In 2019, the richest 20% of the world took 80% of the flights. The 2% of the world population who flew more than six times accounted for 40% of the total passenger flow. This unequal participation in air travel calls for a climate tax that fairly distributes its cost burden. The fairness can be assessed on a few levels: the cost burden on occasional fliers, on low-income travelers, and on countries with low historical emissions.

As an aviation researcher at the International Council on Clean Transportation, I, along with my team, explored policy designs that could raise $4 trillion dollars while addressing these equity concerns. Our study modeled generating 121 billion dollars of tax revenue (the annualized amount of $4 trillion) using a frequent flying levy (FFL) in 2019. The levy increases with each flight taken in a year, from $9 for the second flight to $177 for the 20th. The first flight of any given year would be tax-free. This levy concentrates the tax burden on frequent fliers who are wealthier and usually reside in high-income countries.

The study also estimates that an FFL would have generated 81% of its revenue from the 2% of global population who took more than six flights, and virtually all (98%) of its revenue from the world’s richest 20%. Meanwhile, if you fly only occasionally, the FFL’s impact on your travel spending should be minimal. If there is a flat climate tax on every flight, people in the lower income brackets would have to cut back travel the most, as they are more price sensitive. Conversely, the wealthier, frequent fliers may take as many flights as they did without the tax.

Moreover, access to air travel varies greatly among countries. Residents in developed countries averaged two flights in 2019, while the rest of the world on average took 0.36 flights. Since developed countries have a larger share of frequent fliers, an FFL would generate 67% of its revenue from developed countries, compared with 51% under a flat climate tax. This concentration of cost burden closely tracks countries’ historical emissions: developed countries emitted about 70% of aviation CO2 between 1980 and 2019.

The historical emissions directly affect the carbon budget left for the next few decades, if we were to limit temperature increase to well-below 2 degrees Celsius. The FFL would allow countries in the Global South to grow their aviation markets without prohibitive cost burdens, especially those about to have a lot of first-time fliers. High-income countries would shoulder a majority of the decarbonization costs even though they may not grow as fast.

An FFL takes into consideration the inequality of air travel within each country as well. The idea of a frequent flying levy was first introduced in the UK as a demand management policy. In the UK, 20% of the households took about 75% of the flights; if the levy could nudge each frequent flier to cut a few flights, the emissions would decrease materially without burdening the rest of the country.

We can also think of the FFL as a mechanism to decouple the growth of air travel from its negative environmental impacts. The levy amount can be pegged to the price premium of cleaner fuels, rather than a demand reduction target, as done in the ICCT study. If the frequent fliers paid to decarbonize air travel, the act of frequent flying would no longer be problematic from the emissions standpoint. The industry can also expand into previously under-serviced markets with climate neutral operations. Emerging markets, especially Africa, have a lot of potential for air traffic growth and airport expansion. If clean technology has already penetrated the global market, those future markets can operate with lower carbon intensity as their foundation.

An alternative of frequent flying levy is to tax based on the total miles flown in a year, called “Air Miles Levy,” with some initial miles designated tax-free. Flying distance better correlates with emissions than flying frequency does, but an Air Miles Levy could penalize those who has essential need for flying long-haul, for example to visit family overseas. After all, long-haul flights have much fewer alternatives compared with short-haul flights.

So how would you implement an FFL? There are indeed quite a few logistical hurdles. Major ones include creating an accurate and privacy-protected flying frequency database, distinguishing leisure travel from business travel, and establishing a governance framework for revenue usage. Initial policies can start on the country-level and simplify the process using a tiered levy schedule or focusing on the flights after achieving certain loyalty status with an airline.

Regardless of its design, the bottom line is that any climate tax related to air travel needs to consider the unequal access to the service to-date and the uneven growth of the industry going forward. In the meantime, frequent fliers, either voluntarily or through mandated policy, will have the opportunity to turn themselves from a creator of the problem to its solver.


By Kalena Thomhave and Omar O’Campo, In These Times. May 10, 2023

The Private Jet Industry Is Destroying The Climate And Intensifying Inequality.

Rather Than Providing Subsidies, We Should Tax The Hell Out Of It.

For several hours in early November 2022, hundreds of protesters grounded all private flights at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, one of the most popular and busiest airports in the world. Activists sat on runways to block private jets from taking off before military police moved in and arrested more than 100 protesters.

The superrich have got used to polluting as they please with a total disregard for people and planet, and private jets are the pinnacle of these luxury emissions that we simply cannot afford,” one activist told The Intercept.

Fast forward a few months, and the protesters appeared to be on the brink of success. Schiphol Airport decided to implement a total private jet ban in an effort to reduce air traffic.

It would be a small but symbolically important victory in a world where the private jet industry is taking off among the ultra-wealthy. Celebrities like Kylie Jenner, Taylor Swift and Blake Shelton regularly appear in headlines for their profligate private jet use. Billionaire Elon Musk even banned (and later reinstated) a Twitter account that posted the flight and emission details of his private jet activity.

It’s not just celebrities. The Covid-19 pandemic pushed many extremely rich flyers from the first-class cabin of commercial flights towards the convenience and opulence of private jet travel, either by purchasing their own aircrafts or investing in on-demand chartering programs.

As more of the world’s wealthy turn to private jets for travel, they strengthen an industry that contributes to both the climate crisis and ever-widening inequality. The United States will need its own movement to ground this polluting, extravagant and taxpayer-subsidized industry. That can start with levying taxes on private jet use.

The ​“High Flyers” club

Private jet travel is a luxury enjoyed by a small minority of people we call the ​“high flyers.” The profile of your typical private jet owner is a white male over the age of 50 with a median net worth of $190 million.

In our new report ​“High Flyers 2023: How Ultra-Rich Private Jet Travel Costs the Rest of Us and Burns Up Our Planet,” we document how current U.S. policy incentivizes the use of private jets via handsome tax benefits to their owners, resulting in dire climate and economic consequences for the rest of us.

For example, the carbon footprint of a passenger on a private aircraft is 10 times greater than that of a traveler on a commercial flight. That’s part of the reason why just 1% of travelers are responsible for about half of all aviation carbon emissions.

As a result, a number of countries are in the process of drafting or implementing legislation that intends to limit private flights. France has even flirted with the idea of a total ban.

Though such outright bans are unlikely, the private jet industry does not want lawmakers to regulate a market that is projected to continue its growth. To deflect climate criticism, the private jet industry now argues that it is perfectly positioned to lead global decarbonization efforts through the investment and development of sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs).

SAFs will be an essential energy source in our transition towards a sustainable future, but they currently come with a hefty price tag and make up an insignificant share of the jet fuel market — a negligible 0.1% in 2021. Limited investment and production of SAFs should signal to lawmakers that markets are failing to achieve the green transition we need for air transport.

Meanwhile, U.S. tax policy is actively incentivizing the purchase of jets.

Because of the 2017 Trump tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, private jet owners who can claim they use their jets for majority business purposes can immediately write off 100% of the cost of the aircraft. And while one in six flights are now private, private jet fliers contribute just 2% of the taxes that help fund the Federal Aviation Agency.

Private jet owners are able to enjoy taxpayer-subsidized luxury jets, fly them in airspace protected with public funds primarily provided by commercial fliers, and land them in taxpayer-funded municipal airports that primarily serve private and corporate jets.

Bringing Billionaires Back To Earth

“If I were queen of the world, I would pass a law against private jets, because they enable you to get around a certain reality,” heiress and activist Abigail Disney told The Cut in 2019.

Disney meant the reality of being a person who has to make some sacrifices for the collective good, whether that’s walking through airport security or paying your fair share of taxes. ​“I don’t want a private jet because it hollows you out from the inside,” she added.

Yet it can be all too easy for the wealthy to focus on immediate, short-term benefits and for the aviation industry — both commercial and private — to prioritize profits at the expense of a climate breakdown. Therefore, it is unlikely that any market-based strategy to reverse aviation’s culpability in the climate crisis will be successful.

Instead, countries must invest in innovative green infrastructure and progressive air transportation policy.

They can start by levying taxes on short-haul flights, jet fuels, and sales of both new and pre-owned aircraft. A 10% and 5% luxury tax on pre-owned and new private aircraft, respectively, would have generated $2.6 billion in revenue in 2022 alone. These revenues could be deposited in a fund dedicated to building sustainable transportation infrastructure.

These are efforts that can be taken up by a green movement led by workers and activists. Demonstrations similar to the one held last year in Amsterdam have the potential to put pressure on governments, airports and companies to curtail private air travel.

“We have thought about growth but too little about its impact for too long,” Royal Schiphol Group CEO Ruud Sondag said in a statement after the group moved to ban private flights. ​“I realize that our choices may have significant implications for the aviation industry, but they are necessary. This shows we mean business.”