Why are we paying rich people to pollute our air?

In 2022, the PGA held the US Open Golf Championship (for the fourth time) at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts.  In the week before the tournament, Hanscom Field in Bedford, Massachusetts was unusually busy as the wealthier members of our society came to town in their private planes.  I listened as they flew over my home, one after another.

“No long lines or six-across seating for them,” I thought.  “Must be nice to have so much money you can afford your own plane.”

According to The Boston Globe on May 21st (“At Hanscom, Jet Set Faces Headwinds”), a lot more people have enough money to afford their own plane.  Private aviation is booming.  In what may be a symptom of rising income inequality, there were 2.8 million private plane flights over the United States (half of all flights in the world) in 2022.  This was an 11% increase in flights over 2020, and 18% higher than before the pandemic.    

The Globe claims that more than four times as many planes land at Hanscom Field outside of Boston as did 30 years ago.  (Hanscom is within walking distance of the first battles of the Revolutionary War).   So, Hanscom is now advancing plans to add 27 new hangers for planes, and a 150-car parking lot for their owners and friends.

“What does this have to do with me?” you ask. “I don’t live near Hanscom Field.”

The problem is that flying is one of the “dirtiest” ways to travel, and private jets are especially bad. They emit FORTY-FIVE TIMES more carbon pollution per passenger than commercial jets, and 1,100 TIMES more pollution than trains, according to the Institute for Policy Studies. So, every new plane means new CO2 in the atmosphere at a time when we are trying to reduce it!

Hanscom Field, like almost every airport in the country, is subsidized with our tax dollars — both federal and state. Large airports (e.g., Logan, O’Hare, Kennedy) get the most subsidy, but a significant amount goes to support airports that have no commercial traffic – although it is very difficult to find out exactly how much.  (Hanscom Field’s five-year financial report of income and expenditures does not detail either federal or state aid.)

I spent a couple of hours digging around the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) website to find figures on one subsidy going to approximately 3,800 “non-primary” airports. These are usually small airports with one short runway, no tower, no staff, no instrument landing aids and no scheduled passenger flights. The FAA website has a 90-page listing of these airports and their five-year development plans.

The FAA Airport Improvement Program

Eligible airports can be reimbursed up to 90% of the cost of qualifying infrastructure projects: runways, roads, equipment, etc.

The airports are not listed alphabetically, so it took some time to find all the”non-primary”airports. I was surprised to see there were 20 of them in addition to our six commercial airports (Logan, Worcester, Springfield, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket). This is a small state, geographically. Most of these airports are less than 30 miles from a commercial airport.

Est. Five-Year (2021 to 2025) Development Expenditures

“Non Primary” airports in MA(add 000)
North Adams $996
Westover/Chicopee $2,800
Pittsfield Municipal$2,810
Taunton Municipal$4,600
Marshfield Municipal$4,900
Gardner Municipal$5,400
Orange Municipal$5,500
Lawrence Hanscom Field $5,500
Beverly Regional$10,000
Norwood Municipal$11,500
Southbridge Municipal$11,800
New Bedford Regional$19,100
Plymouth Municipal $20,100
Total MA (in millions)$125,126,000
US Total (Billions)$43,497,945,000
Estimated total federal tax expenditures over five years:$36 Billion

The Airport Improvement Program is only one way your tax dollars subsidize private aviation.  The Wall Street Journal reports that large companies are expanding the use of corporate jets by executives (a tax-deductible expense), and many allow their executives to use the jets for personal travel.  The incidence of such travel has been increasing rapidly.  The median annual value of private jet travel for S&P 500 CEOs was $133,448 2022, while finance chiefs got a median benefit of $21,610.  Note that they don’t pay income taxes on this benefit, which is yet another subsidy from your taxes to the upper income folks.

Imagine that you have one of those jobs that included access to private jets, and you decide to take the family to Disney World.  You make a reservation with your company travel department, and at the appointed time you go to one of these non-priority airports, which doesn’t handle any airlines. You park for free, board your private jet on the tarmac, and fly straight to Orlando. You and your family likely have the plane to yourselves, so you spread out on the comfy recliners and relax.

You did not pay for the flight or the parking. And your income is not increased by the value of the flight. The company gets to deduct all the costs, reducing its taxes.  Subsidies all around for a family likely earning a million dollars a year.

“Corporate aircraft should be for business use only,” said Charles Elson, founding director at the Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware. Executives using corporate planes for personal use should pay for it.”

Private aviation injects huge amounts of CO2 into our atmosphere. Why do we encourage its expansion with tax breaks and subsidies?  Why are we subsidizing people who don’t need the subsidy to do something that hurts us all?

The smartest thing to do would be to eliminate private aviation, at least until we can get CO2 under control.  But we all know that won’t fly with politicians who rely on these rich private plane owners for campaign contributions, and the occasional ride in their Gulfstream. So, I propose a stiff carbon tax on aviation fuel; enough to build and run a carbon sequestration plant (or plants) that can remove the CO2 that private planes insert every year. The more you fly the more you pay.

My other idea is electric planes.  No CO2 emissions.  Quiet.  Better handling.  They are available right now.  Cape Cod Air, a regional carrier, will be switching its whole fleet to electric. We can encourage and (if necessary) force the private plane owners to convert to battery powered planes. 

I recommend that the government do both. Now.

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