- Flying private has long been the status symbol of the wealthy due to the luxury associated with the practice but the decision to avoid commercial flights may now be the responsible choice for those who can afford it.
- As airlines are struggling to reconcile rising passenger numbers with social distancing policies, flights are returning to their previous load factors and some travelers aren’t happy about it.
- More travelers who absolutely have to fly utilizing private aviation would ease pressure on the airlines while supporting a general aviation industry in dire need of assistance.
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Travel shaming is becoming one of the newest trends on social media with outraged passengers documenting their full flights and blaming the airlines and fellow passengers for not following social distancing guidelines.
It’s typically an act in three parts: a passenger complains about their full flight, social media users respond by pointing out that the original poster is contributing to the flight being full and can choose not to travel, and then the airline steps in to basically say they’re doing their best.
While most US airlines have implemented social distancing-friendly policies such as blocking middle seats or requiring face coverings, those measures are quickly becoming obsolete as states begin to loosen lockdowns and travel resumes. Rising passenger numbers from the Transportation Security Administration show more people are ready to return to the skies and revenue-desperate airlines have been forced to make compromises to well-intentioned policies.
A clear alternative to crowded airplanes and ever-changing airline policies is flying private. Having the entire plane to oneself and select others reduces the overall risk of proximity spread and comes with plenty of additional benefits while indirectly helping commercial flyers.
It’s not for many — flying private is still a staple of the wealthy jet-setting class. But private jet flying may now be the socially conscious way to travel for those who can afford to do so as to leave commercial airplane seats empty for those who can’t.
Flying private is safer — for everyone
Flying private is already regarded as a safer form of travel due to significantly fewer touchpoints in any given journey, though personal protective equipment should still be worn. But even social distancing is easier as flyers can drive right up to a plane at most airports without enduring a security screening and have their transportation waiting planeside when they land.
The conveniences of private aviation amid a pandemic are no longer just for the benefit of the flyer but for all around them, especially airport workers. The industry is built on convenience and discretion, an upside to which includes flyers never coming into contact with most of the workers that support their flights, unlike the commercial setting that requires interaction with check-in agents, gate agents, security screeners, and other personnel.
Private jet companies are also now taking measures to sanitize aircraft using enhanced cleaning techniques and antimicrobial coatings.
The wealthy have this safer alternative at their disposal but they’re just not taking advantage of it. Pre-pandemic data from a McKinsey webinar on May 15 touted by private aviation leaders and viewed by Business Insider estimated that 90% of individuals with the means to fly private choose not to.
Industry CEOs told Business Insider that one reason for this trend is that not every person with means can justify the cost of a private charter to themselves, even if they can afford it. A weekend trip to Florida from New York can cost around $30,000 while even a one-night trip from New York to California can cost upwards of $50,000.
In the past, that might have been reason enough to stick to first class but now, every person that opts to stay off a commercial flight is alleviating the pressure on an industry that hasn’t quite figured out a long-term solution and easing the minds of travelers that have no alternative but to fly commercial.
The wealthy can aid social distancing on commercial flights by staying off them
In the early days of the pandemic, social distancing in the skies was not a problem as only a small fraction of the traveling public was taking to the skies. Reports of empty flights or flights departing with only one passenger filled social media and one could easily keep six feet apart from a flight-mate if need be.
But those days are quickly ending if they’re not already gone, according to Department of Homeland Security statistics. May 22 saw the US reach the greatest number of passengers passing through TSA security checkpoints since late-March at 348,673. That followed 318,449 the day before and in the days since the total number of commercial passengers never dropped below 250,000.
In the face of rising passenger numbers, some airlines have abandoned their initial policies. United Airlines, for example, had initially announced the airline would block middle seats but a social media post from a flyer onboard a packed flight days later revealed that policy wasn’t being followed.
The airline, instead, offered passengers the opportunity to change flights for free if their flight was filing up, a policy similarly offered by American Airlines. But the special accommodations won’t last just as the initial policy from United didn’t; and the allure of increased gains for revenue-strapped airlines will ultimately lead right back to crowded flights, with or without a vaccine.
There’s a larger economic case for flying private overlooked by the industry’s critics
Utilizing private aviation also comes with strong economic benefits in addition to safety at a time when the aviation industry needs it the most.
While those onboard private jets may be wealthy, the industry that supports every flight is comprised of blue-collar workers. Transportation and material moving occupations, according to May 2019 Bureau of Labor Statistics data, yield an annual mean wage of $42,280 and a median hourly wage of $15.95 out of 73,560 employees.
A 2020 PricewaterhouseCoopers study sponsored by industry associations also found that general aviation, of which private aircraft charter is key, contributed $246.8 billion in 2018’s economic output and supported nearly 1.2 million jobs in the US alone.
Without private flights, those numbers will fall just as they did for the airlines that have already begun furloughing and laying off workers.
The climate is still a concern
Flying on a private aircraft comes with its own environmental consequences that can’t be ignored, despite the economic and health benefits.
As reported by Bloomberg, carbon dioxide emissions from private planes are 20-times greater per passenger mile than a commercial airliner. That’s not because private planes are more inefficient than airliners but because fewer people are onboard the plane to share the heavy environmental burden.
In order to safeguard the environment, travel should still be limited and unnecessary jet-setting should still be discouraged. If travel is a necessity, private flyers should pay to offset their emissions and private aviation companies preparing for an uptick in travel should encourage their customers to do so to ensure compliance as we move into a new era of responsible travel.
While it’s not the responsibility of the wealthy to help airlines ease back into pre-pandemic service levels, societal elites have access to a private form of travel that most commercial flyers could only dream of. For most travelers, the alternatives are to stay home or drive but the upper class can easily opt to fly private instead of contributing to crowded flights and actually be doing so in the interest of public health.
Prior to the pandemic, flying private was viewed as a show of excess but in a turn of events that only a pandemic could bring, it just might be the responsible choice for those who can afford it, especially for the sake of those who can’t.