Flying Solo: Are ultra-high-net-worth individuals giving up their private jets?
We explore the surprising private jet trend that might be bringing this sky-high sector back down to earth
Image by @jakobnoahrosen
Georgia businessman Stephen Prince hit headlines this spring following the decision to sell his private jet over environmental concerns. The entrepreneur, who made most of his fortune through ownership of National Business Products, which prints plastic business cards, was until recently the owner of three private jets. He now owns only one, a 12-seat Cessna 650, which, according to news reports, he says will be his last.
This downsizing of his private jet fleet has a perfectly reasonable and ethical explanation: the environment. But with private jets continuing to see a boom in first-time purchasers and users, is he leading the way for a wider trend, or merely an anomaly?
The benefits of private jets are, for those who can afford them, undeniable. The ease, efficiency, and familiarity they offer are – when time is money – invaluable. Once the stronghold of a select few billionaires, this has changed in line with the rising fortunes of the wealthy – exacerbated by the pandemic – coupled with a lack of commercial flights in 2019, 2020, and into 2021. Meanwhile, the private jet industry bounced back at speed, and those who would once never have considered a private jet suddenly have both the wherewithal and the desire to become part of the club. Either through outright ownership, membership programs, or on-demand chartering.
Between 2021 and 2022, private flights from the UK alone increased 75%, with the US, the UK and France dominating the global market – while the latter has recently taken action to cut down emissions, effectively putting a stop to short-haul private jet flights where train alternatives exist, this is yet to be replicated elsewhere.
So, for Stephen and others considering the environmental impact, what are the solutions? Firstly, private jet sharing is increasingly common, with firms such as VistaJet offering a seat on a flight for members and non-members alike. Normalising luxury travel and making it more accessible, the theory of jet-sharing in this way is undeniably attractive. There are no overheads or running costs, and tickets for a fraction of the price of jet ownership without the hassle of flying commercial; yet there are logistical challenges to be encountered, too.
With jet sharing companies yet to build the same fleets as commercial airlines, if something goes wrong the wait times to repair or replace may currently leave customers stranded. Furthermore, with the booming popularity of these services, flight availability for non-members can be understandably thin on the ground. With the infrastructure still being built, for now there’s a way to go before this option challenges the convenience of simply chartering, or calling up your jet and getting airborne within hours.
For eco-conscious flyers, sustainable aviation fuel – aka SAF – is a step in the right direction, if not yet widely available. While mandates for jet fuel suppliers have been proposed in the British parliament to drive demand, at present it is relatively little used. At consumer level, this is due to a lack of availability and the associated infrastructure to fuel the jets plus, of course, the higher price tag it affords. Making an extra trip to fuel with SAF seems counter-intuitive in the short term, but as more providers offer this as standard, we may see the switch to SAF being widespread at both a private and commercial level.
For now, private jet charter service Victor is one of the few to offer SAF as an option, upselling to its affluent clientele in a ‘pay here, use there’ model. Rather than going out of the way to fuel with SAF for a specific flight, they bank the miles and use the fuel on a more convenient flight through partner airlines. A smart interim solution, and one which addresses both the necessity and privilege of flying solo.