Flight-shaming: Challenging the Narrative

 - February 1, 2023, 9:36 AM
(Photo: Adobe Stock)

The European business aviation industry has been caught in the crosshairs of a burgeoning, vocal, and increasingly influential environmental community that regards the use of private aircraft as a polluting luxury that the planet can ill afford to accommodate.

Of course, business aviation is no stranger to such opprobrium having faced a barrage of bruising assaults over the years from activists, adversarial politicians, and their erstwhile media cheerleaders seeking to negatively—and incorrectly—portray business aircraft as toys for the super-rich and symbols of extravagance and excess.

“We have become accustomed to negative publicity and have always challenged our critics head-on by presenting clear facts about the industry and the invaluable role it plays,” said Robert Baltus, chief operations officer for the European Business Aviation Association (EBAA).

He admitted, however, that the industry is on particularly high alert today and its detractors are as tenacious as ever. “There are a number of vocal environmentalists that have had business aircraft in their sights for some time and like to put our industry in the corner where it doesn’t belong,” Baltus conceded.

Crucially, their voices are amplified in the current climate, “where the aviation sector’s carbon footprint is being scrutinized like never before,” and the pandemic-related uptick in business jet travel has thrown the issue into sharper relief, he noted.

Mounting Hostility

Hostility towards business aviation in Europe has manifested in a cacophony of protests by activist groups at airports and private aircraft terminals throughout the continent. These included the coordinated demonstrations and “sit-ins” last November to coincide with the United Nations climate convention being held in Egypt.

Groups including Extinction Rebellion and Scientist Rebellion hit out at the scores of UN delegates who traveled to the COP27 conference by business jet and demanded a complete ban on their use, along with high taxes on airline frequent flyers. Protests included blockading the entrances to Farnborough Airport and the Harrods Aviation FBO at London Luton airport in the UK.  

Similar protests were also staged at Milan Linate airport in Italy, while around 500 Dutch members of Greenpeace rode bicycles into the business aviation enclave at Amsterdam Schiphol airport and blockaded aircraft.

Calls to curb private aircraft use have been mounting since August last year when France’s transport minister Clement Beaune called for tougher regulation of the industry. President Emmanuel Macron and the country’s Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne subsequently requested concrete proposals for measures that could include bans on some flights and punitive taxes.

Other European countries including Belgium and the Netherlands are also mulling curbs on aircraft usage, said EBAA, while the UK government is facing calls to impose a 10-fold increase in the air passenger duty for private charter flights.

Branding business jets as “hugely damaging to the environment and the preservation of the super-rich,” environmental transport group the Campaign for Better Transport wants business aviation to lose its current exemption from the country’s 20 percent value-added tax (VAT) and for this levy to be imposed on every aircraft movement regardless of flight duration. 

Athar Husain Khan, secretary general, EBAA
Athar Husain Khan, secretary general, European Business Aviation Association. (Photo: EBAA)

“This assault on business aviation is creeping into several countries in Europe and it’s not going to go away,” said EBAA secretary general Athar Husain Khan. “The industry is in this for the long run—a marathon rather than a 100-meter sprint, so to speak,” he added.

More Flights, More Visibility

The Brussels-based trade association suggests the unwelcome spotlight on business aviation today has largely been triggered by the exponential rise in private aircraft travel as a result of the pandemic. A record-breaking 800,000 aircraft movements were conducted across Europe in 2022, EBAA claimed—100,000 more than the previous “normal” years.

“The perception is that business aircraft are flown by rich people for frivolous journeys, but in reality, most are deployed on medical, humanitarian, urgent cargo, head-of-state, and business-related missions,” said EBAA’s Baltus.

Business aviation leaders will continue to engage with policymakers at local, national, and the European level, he continued, to educate and present the case for business aviation in Europe. Baltus pointed to the industry’s €100 billion ($95 billion) in economic output and generation of around 450,000 jobs, directly and indirectly.

Furthermore, Baltus said it is critical the business aviation industry reinforces the message that of good and responsible stewardship of the environment “and has been working hard for more than two decades to move in the right direction on sustainability.”

Baltus points to the “pioneering” Business Aviation Commitment on Climate Change (BACCC) initiative, launched in 2009 with the aim of achieving net-zero carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions (relative to 2005) by 2050. Industry groups including the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) and the International Business Aviation Council have developed four guiding principles that provide a road map for ensuring safety, security, and sustainability. They include fostering investments to increase sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) production and availability; encouraging greater use of industry initiatives such as SAF book-and-claim; supporting innovations such as electric-powered aircraft and other technologies that cut CO2 emissions, and championing cooperative programs to increase aviation sustainability.

“We committed in 2009 through the BACCC to reduce greenhouse gas emissions of the global business aviation fleet by 2 percent year-on-year by 2020, which we achieved, recording a fall of over 7 million tonnes of CO2 over that period,” commented Kyle Martin, GAMA’s vice-president of European affairs. “We renewed that pledge in 2021 and continue to slash CO2 by 2 percent annually.”

These achievements have been met in part through efficiencies in powerplants and aircraft designs including aerodynamic refinements, the use of composite structures and other lightweight materials throughout the aircraft, and improvements in avionics systems such as wider adoption of synthetic vision and head-up displays which allow aircraft to avoid weather delays.

“Business aviation has long led the charge in the aviation industry on technological development investing billions in R&D to create enhanced, efficient, sustainable, safe, and desirable products. Today is no different,” said Martin.

Answering Critics with Sustainability

His view is supported by Marc Bailey, chief executive of the British Business and General Aviation Association. Bailey suggests the industry’s message must focus on its commitment to developing and implementing sustainable technology if it is to win over its critics. “We have a target on our backs,” he exclaimed. “While there is still a place in certain quarters to promote the benefits of private aviation as ‘time machines’ and ‘tools for growing businesses and economies,’ this argument is just not going to wash any longer in this environmentally sensitive climate.

“To win the argument today we have to demonstrate how our industry is charting the pathway towards a decarbonized future,” Bailey added, “and there are plenty of examples.” 

He points to the developments of alternative propulsion systems—hydrogen fuel cells, hybrid-electric and full-electric, for example—which have a clear path to their application in aerospace. Programs such as the Ampaire Eco Caravan (hybrid), and Eviation Alice (full-electric) notched their first sorties in 2022, while companies like ZeroAvia are closing in on this milestone with its hydrogen fuel-cell-based powertrain, Bailey noted. Developments in electric and battery technology are also driving a plethora of small electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft that are expected to come online as part of the advanced air mobility revolution before the end of the decade.

“We now need to roll up our sleeves and create the infrastructure and regulatory environment to bring these programs over the line and into service as soon as possible,” said Bailey.

So far, business aviation’s decarbonization efforts have largely been ignored by climate activists.

Critics of private aircraft flying frequently take aim at the high carbon burn per passenger compared with a regular commercial flight, acknowledged Glenn Hogben, chief executive of the Air Charter Association (ACA). “The narrative is often focused on the environmental cost per passenger, and while we acknowledge that the carbon burn for a business aircraft user is comparatively higher than that of a commercial aircraft passenger, it is important to emphasize that the industry contributes only 0.04 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions annually,” said Hogben. 

Environmentally Conscious

Despite the negative rhetoric, business aircraft operators and flyers are “environmentally conscious,” he insisted. To support this claim, Hogben pointed to a recent survey of ACA members in which more than 70 percent pledged to become net zero operations by 2032. 

“Already more than half of the charter flights provided by our members use verified carbon offset programs to cover the emissions, and almost 70 percent are offsetting higher than the emissions on that flight,” said Hogben.

Glenn Hogben, CEO, Air Charter Association
Glenn Hogben, CEO, Air Charter Association. (Photo: ACA)

With the availability of SAF—a lower carbon alternative to jet fuel—still patchy in Europe, book-and-claim programs are becoming increasingly popular. This initiative allows operators to purchase SAF at an airport where it is unavailable and receive credit for its supply and use at one where it is. “While there is no single solution to reach net zero, SAF is critical because it works to reduce CO2 emissions now,” said Hogben

Unfortunately, global SAF supplies are less than 5 percent of aviation fuel demand, he noted, and SAF is far more expensive than conventional jet fuel.  

“With the right market incentives that encourage investment in production and wider use, the cost will come down significantly,” said Hogben.

Furthermore, the SAF blend cannot be more than 50 percent under current regulations, although Gulfstream in December became the business jet manufacturer to fly one of its aircraft on 100 percent SAF.

While the industry is committed to playing its part in the global decarbonization drive, it believes Europe’s legislators must also step up, and urgently progress the long-delayed Single European Sky (SES) project. 

Operators have expressed increasing frustration at the lack of efficiency and continued fragmentation of Europe’s air traffic control services, which means their aircraft are flying longer than necessary routes. 

Baltus said efforts by the European Commission to streamline the erratic network of national air navigation service providers and air traffic control centers have consistently faced roadblocks from some member states—notably France and Germany, which jointly control a large part of the continent’s airspace—that want to retain sovereignty over their airspace and the revenues it generates. 

“SES has become too political, which is a shame,” admitted Baltus. “Implementing SES will allow seamless, direct routings meaning less time in the air, less inconvenience, lower costs and vitally, a reduction in CO2 emissions.”