high times

The Airstocracy

Six things to know about flying with the superrich.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images

It was all quite serene, at first. Out on a gated-off section of taxiway at Geneva Airport in May, a row of private jets (PJs, to fans) gleamed under the warm spring sun: Bombardier Challengers, Dassault Falcons, and Gulfstreams stood in a line beneath the distant verdure of the Alps. The display was part of the European Business Aviation Convention and Exhibition, a yearly confab that brings together manufacturers and service providers with their ultrarich customers in a politically neutral safe space. Velvet ropes and red carpets separated the curious onlookers from the VIPs being escorted aboard to tour the cabins and cockpits with swiveling leather club chairs, walnut veneer, and, in at least one case, a stateroom with an extra-long seat belt stretching across a full-size bed. The vibe was discreet, calm, befitting an environment designed to cosset the fortunate as they wafted through the upper reaches of the stratosphere.

Then, a hubbub of shouting and a rumble of footsteps. A hundred young climate protesters wearing orange vests like airport workers had broken through the fences and were racing toward the aircraft, juking past the employees who were trying to fend them off. Not all the manufacturers’ employees fought with equal vigor. “You really found out where people’s loyalties lay,” one told me later. “Some ran forward, and some cowered.” Amid the confusion, a few protesters managed to handcuff themselves to some of the planes’ landing gear, where they chanted and held signs reading “Private Jets Burn Our Future” and “Fuel Inequality.” In the end, police hauled off the protesters, and the trade show went on, albeit with a slightly shaky, post-traumatic skittishness.

The skirmish encapsulated the tensions that have begun to grip private aviation. At a time when income inequality has reached dizzying extremes, there has never been so much money pouring into an industry that’s become a byword for extreme luxury, nor has flying private enjoyed so much cultural resonance: stealing scenes in Succession and BlackBerry, infiltrating news headlines about Supreme Court justices, inspiring rap lyrics, and obsessing thirsty TikTokers. At the same time, it’s come under withering attack as a proxy for the self-destructive obliviousness of the megarich and become a symbol of how unfair and unsustainable their privilege is. With regulations tightening in several European countries and pressure building for more, it’s entirely possible that private flying’s sudden cultural ascendancy could help pave the way for its ultimate demise.

What’s undeniable is that, since exclusivity and discretion are core to the value proposition, there’s a lot about flying private that most people are never going to encounter on their own. A lot of what goes on at 40,000 feet could make people mad. It could also make them want it more.


If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.

According to the Institute for Policy Studies, a left-leaning think tank, only the wealthiest top 0.0008 percent of the population — folks with a median net worth of $190 million — manage to own a private jet. They represent a diverse array of ages, ethnicities, and career paths. Just kidding! Most owners are male and older than 50, and made their money in banking, finance, or real estate. Sixty percent of the world’s jets are owned by Americans.

Some of the reasons for the high expense are obvious. The smallest jet on the market, the five-passenger Cirrus SF50 Vision Jet, costs $2.2 million, while the biggest are massive converted airliners that can run to $350 million, like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner owned by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich. What first-time buyers quickly realize is that the price tag for the plane is just the start. “It isn’t just the cost of the plane,” says Jeff Habib, a managing partner at the jet-acquisition and sale brokerage Intercontinental Aircraft Group. “You should have a full-time head of maintenance — with a $30 million aircraft, you don’t want to skimp on maintenance — and full-time pilots, and that means salaries with health insurance and 401(k).” Operating costs alone, which include fuel and maintenance, can run around $3,000 to $6,000 an hour for a midsize jet.

To get around that punishing math, companies like Flexjet and NetJets sell fractional shares of private jets that let you avoid the full cost and still use the plane a certain number of hours per year. The average net worth of these folks is significantly less — only around $140 million.

Despite the cost, the size of the global PJ fleet has more than doubled since 2000, as income inequality has soared and the ranks of the superrich have swelled. Industry insiders say that while for many years, most private-jet purchases have been made by corporations for business travel, in the last few years that has shifted so that the majority of customers are now high-net-worth individuals.

The increasing popularity of private jets for personal recreation and leisure can be seen most plainly at events like NASCAR races and the Super Bowl, where the inbound private jets are stacked up so thick that pilots have to apply for time-specific landing slots. The biggest private-jet event of all is the Masters golf tournament, held each April in Augusta, Georgia, where the acreage of parked aircraft is so vast that they have to shut down runways to hold the overflow. “When you get to the ramp, there could be 100 or 200 airplanes there,” says David Miller, a pilot who owns his own Cessna Citation. “Just taxiing your airplane between all these giant, expensive jets without bumping into them is the challenging part.”


It’s a parallel system.

Today’s super-wealthy don’t belong to any particular place on earth; their money ebbs and flows across the world’s network while they themselves waft back and forth above, from stud auctions in Kentucky to superyacht outings in the Maldives to ski weekends in Gstaad. That kind of lifestyle wouldn’t be possible without the speed and convenience of private jets.
Given their escape from the confines of mundane reality, many high-net-worth individuals prefer to avoid unnecessary contact with unknown humans. A big selling point is the ability to minimize what are known as “touch points”: the individual micro-interactions that take place as we move through the world, like saying hello to a gate agent or asking a fellow passenger to switch seats. “When you fly commercial, there are more than 700 touch points,” says Alexandra Price, brand communications manager at the jet-charter company VistaJet. “When you fly private, it’s just 20.”

Many private flights originate out of smaller, more intimate airports like Teterboro in the New York City area or Van Nuys in Los Angeles. Your driver takes you right up to the airplane on the tarmac, the flight attendant greets you by name and gives you the preferred food and beverage, your bags are brought aboard, and off you go. You don’t need luggage that closes or zips; you can bring pets and anything else you want. In many top-end jets, the air is fresher and denser (so it’s like being at a lower altitude) than on an airline flight. It’s basically an aviation system separate from and astronomically better than the one the rest of us use.

“You feel like a fucking rock star,” one Hollywood actress I know says. “First class sucks in comparison.”

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images


Size really matters.

The mere fact that you’re flying private sets you apart, but there are gradations within that exclusive elite. Over the years, different manufacturers have earned reputations for different kinds of luxury in much the same way that Mercedes, BMW, and Porsche have. The equivalent to those brands in airplane terms would be Dassault, which makes the Falcon Jet line; Bombardier, which makes the Challenger and Global lines; and Gulfstream, which makes the G series. “Twenty or thirty years ago, Dassault was the leader in cutting-edge technology, with a foundation built on their fighter jet line. Their airplanes were greener, lighter, and used less fuel,” says an aircraft consultant who prefers not to be identified. “The pilots would say, ‘If you want a sports car, buy a Falcon.’”

Gulfstreams, in contrast, were updated versions of planes that had been around for years. They were reliable and familiar, spacious with good range. “If you wanted an SUV, you got yourself a Gulfstream.”

Bombardier’s line then was a bit smaller, but reliable and economical. “If you just wanted an all-day, every-day chugger, you bought a Challenger 604 or 605.”

Those reputations have gone away somewhat, as technology has transformed all three manufacturers’ offerings. “Today I would argue they’re all great airplanes,” the consultant says. But each type has its fans. Jeff Bezos, Tiger Woods, Oprah Winfrey, and Bill Gates all own Gulfstreams. Taylor Swift owns two Dassault Falcons, and Jay-Z and Beyoncé own a Bombardier Global.

The kind of plane you fly, how big it is, and how you own it can all affect your social prospects among the PJ set. A friend of mine who’s active on Raya says that a Chicago billionaire she met on the site offered to fly her from Westchester out to Chicago for dinner. She was disappointed that he sent a NetJet to fetch her, rather than his own personal plane — and even more so when, after she didn’t sleep with him, he sent her back on a smaller jet.

She was even more nonplussed when another suitor proposed flying her down to Nantucket for lunch. The aircraft he proposed sending wasn’t even a jet, but a turboprop. It was a $3 million aircraft, but the prospect of flying in something with a propeller didn’t appeal. She declined the invitation.


The jets are the 1% of global warmers.

Climate change is real, burning fossil fuels makes the problem worse, and aviation is a major source of greenhouse gasses. No one denies any of this, even within the industry, which is why it has pledged to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. But that promise doesn’t do much good right now. According to the Institute for Policy Studies, “Private jets emit at least ten times more pollutants than commercial planes per passenger.” As a result, one percent of the population is responsible for generating half of the greenhouse gasses emitted by aviation — hence the protests like the one in Geneva. “We wanted to expose the disproportionate impact of the superrich lifestyle on the climate, and especially their private jets,” says Charlène Fleury, a French climate activist who took part in that demonstration. “The superrich will not suffer the effects of climate change, they will be able to protect themselves from it.”

All that activism seems to be having some effect, particularly in Europe. Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam is proposing to ban all private jets by 2026 because they cause “a disproportionate amount of noise nuisance and CO2 emissions per passenger.” France has already banned domestic jet flights for trips that could be done in less than two and a half hours by train.

There have been fewer disruptive protests on this side of the Atlantic, where activists have mostly confined their efforts to social media. Thanks to publicly available flight data, it’s easy to track celebrities’ private jets to calculate how much they’re contributing to global warming. One internet marketing company made a list of the worst offenders and reported that Taylor Swift came out at No. 1, having generated more than 1,000 times more carbon dioxide than the average American in 2022. (A Swift spokesman refuted the allegation, telling Rolling Stone that “Taylor’s jet is loaned out regularly to other individuals. To attribute most or all of these trips to her is blatantly incorrect.”)

Bernard Arnault, the CEO of luxury-goods conglomerate LVMH, got so sick of activist pressure that he recently sold his private plane so that he couldn’t be tracked. “The result now is that no one can see where I go, because I rent planes when I use private planes,” he told an interviewer.


What happens at 35,000 feet stays there.

The mass media can’t quite figure out how it should feel about flying private. On the one hand, jets are exclusive and glamorous, which is good, but on the other, they’re extravagant, wasteful, and undemocratic, which is bad. It all adds up to a kind of horny censoriousness, an attitude encapsulated by the U.K. tabloids’ coverage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle: tut-tutting over their climate-killing wealth-squandering when they fly private, then dinging them for sneaking aboard when they fly commercial.

Here in the States, there are two main kinds of scandal that attach themselves to PJs. There’s the fact that they can be used as subtle forms of bribery to corrupt public officials, as highlighted by recent revelations that Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito had both taken undisclosed flights aboard private jets owned by ultraconservative billionaire donors. And then there’s the salacious kind that crops up when powerful men and women sequester themselves in small enclosed spaces far from prying eyes. Discretion being one of the main keywords of the industry (“Private aviation means privacy,” says former flight attendant Rucsandra Mihai. “You have to be very discreet.”), these stories rarely make it to the public except when lawyers get involved. In 2022, Business Insider reported that SpaceX paid a flight attendant $250,000 after she accused Elon Musk of propositioning her for sex as she gave him a massage, exposing his penis to her and offering to buy her a horse if she would “do more.” Musk denies the claim. Whatever happened, it probably couldn’t hold a candle to whatever happened on Jeffrey Epstein’s 727, whose passenger manifest included Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, and many passengers identified only as “single female.”


We are all paying for their luxury.

The public subsidizes the private-jet lifestyle through taxes that maintain airports and air traffic control. From time to time, the FAA has tried to impose user fees on private jets to offset the cost of that infrastructure; every time, jet owners have rallied to lobby their representatives, and the provisions have quietly vanished. Under Trump, the first president to own his own jet, the government cut a substantial tax break for private-plane ownership. Today, jet owners pay 87 percent less in federal taxes than what commercial passengers are charged. According to the Institute for Policy Studies, “Private jets make up approximately one out of every six flights handled by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) but contribute just 2 percent of the taxes that make up the trust fund that primarily funds the FAA.”

It’s all manifestly unfair, but there isn’t much of a groundswell for changing things. The thing about Americans and rich people is that, as annoying and frankly even detrimental to the survival of civilization on this planet as they may be, there’s always a piece of us that imagines that maybe, just maybe, we’ll get a lucky break that will propel us up into their ranks, and it will be us sitting up there at 40,000 feet on a custom-built leather club chair eating cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off. Maybe all that waste and pollution will be worth it, because it will be for us. Do we really want to give that up, even if the probability is minuscule?

As VistaJet’s Price puts it, “Once you go private, it’s very hard to go back.”

The Airstocracy