If anything symbolizes the excesses and inequalities of the last few years, it's the private Learjet or Gulfstream. While the masses take off their shoes and line up for security screening, high-fliers inhabit a parallel transportation universe characterized by cozy private terminals, flexible departures and nonexistent security. In flight, the sky is the limit, with some private jet owners spending $10 million to $40 million on interior decorating, which could include gold bathroom fixtures and rare-wood paneling, as well as flight staffs, including chefs and masseuses.
But corporate America is finally waking up and smelling the jet fuel. The American taxpayer, reeling from the economic meltdown, doesn't feel like subsidizing lavish jets and bonuses any more. First there was the spectacle of the Big Three auto-industry CEOs flying in their separate private jets to beg for taxpayer bailout funds. Humbled by the blowback, they each drove energy-efficient cars on their subsequent visit to Washington.
Then it was revealed that Citigroup, recipient of $50 billion in federal bailout funds, was purchasing a $50 million French-made, 12-seat, Dassault Falcon private jet. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., was livid: "To permit Citigroup to purchase a plush plane -- foreign-built no less -- while domestic auto companies are being required to sell off their jets is a ridiculous double standard." President Barack Obama weighed in, pressing Citigroup CEO Richard Parsons to forgo the jet. Yet, six other financial companies that received billions in bailout funds, including AIG, Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America continue to operate fleets of private jets.
A ban on private jet ownership for recipients of funds from the Trouble Assets Relief Program passed the U.S. House of Representatives and awaits action in the Senate.
But now is the time for all of America's corporate titans to surrender their private jets -- and not just as symbols of greed. Private jet travel imposes heavy costs on to the rest of us, first by straining air traffic control systems. Although commercial airlines are mostly to blame for airport delays, private jets add to the congestion, particularly in the New York City airspace where commercial flights only account for 53 percent of the air traffic. The Big Apple's delays compound through the air system, triggering a third of all delayed flights nationwide.
Private jets also contribute disproportionately to global warming. A private jet passenger, with his or her Godzilla-size carbon footprint, puts five times more carbon into the atmosphere than a commercial jet passenger. An hour aloft in a private jet burns as much fuel as a year of driving. Furthermore, as Britain's anti-terror chief has warned, private jets pose an unacceptable security risk, since there's nothing to stop passengers from carrying weapons aboard, never mind 4-ounce containers of lotion. The U.S. Homeland Security department agrees, but eight years after 9/11, it still hasn't adopted security rules for private jets.
Meanwhile, the rest of us, as taxpayers and commercial travelers, subsidize private jet travel through fees, infrastructure funds and tax breaks. Private jets use 16 percent of air traffic control system services, but pay only 3 percent of the costs, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. And a third of airport improvement funds over the last couple years have gone to fix up small, remote airports serving primarily private jets, such as Oregon's North Bend airport, where 5,000 wealthy golfers a year are able to land their private jets before playing at the world-class Brandon Dunes course.
If it's too painful for the super-rich to abandon their stratospheric sybaritism, Congress should at least impose a luxury tax on private jets to offset their environmental impact. They should also fix the FAA's funding structure to require private jets to pay their fair share of the air traffic control system costs and impose a few security requirements. But ideally, the high fliers should come down to earth with the rest of us. Maybe if more powerful CEOs had to endure the delays, indignities and discomforts of commercial air travel, they would throw their tremendous clout behind a transportation policy that works for everyone.