Private Jets Targeted as Symbols of Inequality

WASHINGTON - Crusaders against inequality are accusing the private jet set of flying high at the expense of the environment, the national air traffic system, and lower-class taxpayers.

"The private jet is one of the most powerful symbols of extreme inequality," research and advocacy groups Institute for Policy Studies and Essential Action say in a new report denounced by the business aviation industry as a "political screed" riddled with inaccuracy.

The super-rich breeze through congested airports and luxuriate in their own aircraft while the general public contend with long queues, degrading security procedures, and increasingly costly and uncomfortable flights, say the authors of the report, "High Flyers".

"This sharp division is not merely a symbolic matter," they say.

Ordinary taxpayers and commercial airline passengers subsidise the booming private aviation industry, they add.

As evidence of the boom, they note that the number of private jets plying U.S. skies increased tenfold from 1,000 in 1970 to 10,000 in 2006 and that the figure is set to double again by 2017. These figures suggest the rate of growth is moderating but the report says private jets continue to outrace growth in airline travel.

Even as they take off in increasing numbers, it adds, "Private jet travelers don't pay their fair share of the costs associated with air traffic safety." An airliner flying from New York to Miami would pay 2,015 dollars in taxes but a private jet flying nearly the same route would pay only 236 dollars while incurring similar air traffic control costs.

The authors, citing Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) figures, say that commercial aviation pays 95 percent of total air traffic control costs although it uses only 73 percent of the FAA's services.

In contrast, "general aviation -- the segment of the industry that includes corporate jets, charters, air taxis, and recreational pilots -- uses 16 percent of the services but pays just three percent of the cost," says the report released Tuesday.

The groups also are irritated that elite vacation destinations -- California's Napa Valley, for example, and Colorado's mountain resort of Aspen -- have consumed what they see as disproportionate amounts of federal funding for airport improvement.

In 2005-2007, these and other remote airstrips garnered 2.2 billion dollars of 7 billion dollars in taxpayer money earmarked for such purposes, says their report. The authors provide no details of where previous rounds of funding were spent.

Adding to the tax bill, the economic stimulus package passed by Congress and signed by President George W. Bush earlier this year hands private jet owners the option of claiming an enhanced portion of the cost of each new jet in the first year of ownership. This is known as "accelerated depreciation" and remains a controversial plank in the administration's recovery platform, with many experts assailing its effectiveness in stimulating job creation through business expansion.

Then there is the environmental cost. The report says that each of four passengers flying a Cessna Citation X business jet between Los Angeles and New York emits about five times as much carbon dioxide as one of an unspecified number of passengers on an unspecified type of commercial airplane on the same route. Scientists say carbon dioxide is a major culprit in global warming.

The report acknowledges that private jets often provide the only link to remote communities beyond the reach of the woefully limited hub-and-spoke routes flown by major commercial carriers. It suggests, however, that high-speed rail would constitute an environmentally prudent alternative that even ordinary travelers might be able to afford.

The authors further recommend heavier taxes on the ownership and use of private jets, and measures to charge private jet users for the carbon dioxide they spew into the atmosphere.

The report echoes criticisms made by commercial carriers who have lost premium passengers to rivals in the business aviation industry. For this reason, says the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), it should be dismissed.

"This report is 30 pages of nothing but outrageous claims and the warmed-over rhetoric used by the nation's big airlines," says Ed Bolen, the NBAA president. "It is unfortunate that at a time when businesses are struggling and communities are losing air service, we see political screed masquerading as a policy report."

Bolen highlights "inaccuracies and distortions" in the document.

Industry flight hours have remained roughly constant despite the report's claim that travel has expanded dramatically, he says.

All significant capital equipment, regardless of industry, is eligible for accelerated depreciation, contrary to the report's inference that private jets won an exclusive tax break under this year's economic stimulus package, Bolen adds.

And closer inspection of the FAA data on which the report bases its claim that U.S. passenger airlines pay 95 percent of all air traffic control costs reveals this to be untrue, according to the NBAA.

The numbers in the report conflate data for U.S. and foreign carriers of passengers and cargo, the trade group says. Were the figure limited to U.S. passenger carriers -- a more direct and realistic comparison, it says -- then this would show commercial carriers actually foot 77 percent of the bill.

The details appear destined for further debate. The commercial and business aviation industries are lobbying to influence legislation pending in Congress.

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