Photography: Aaron Foster/Getty Images
A growing number of Australians are spending big on private jets for vacations, interstate meetings and moving their pets in luxury. Charter planes carried nearly 320,000 people in January, according to government data, a 28% increase on the 250,000 recorded in January 2020, before the introduction of travel restrictions due to Covid. While many of the passengers were staff members posted to work in remote locations, aviation experts say much of the recent increase is due to wealthy individuals chartering private planes.
Some charter companies have doubled their profits, while others have sought more planes as they struggle to meet demand. And even though commercial flights have resumed post-Covid, customers once wary of the virus have remained loyal, now unwilling to risk cancellations and delays.
Related: Twenty hours on a Qantas plane: is this the future of aviation or a new economic hell?
But climate scientists warn that this trend is bad for the environment, with some describing private jets as “the dirtiest form of transport you can take”. Short domestic flights can cost thousands of dollars on a private jet, in stark contrast to the cost-of-living crisis and growing gap between Australia’s richest and poorest.
Nick Stobie, the chief pilot of Australian Air Safaris, which operates out of Moorabbin Airport in Melbourne’s southeastern suburbs, said business has boomed since the pandemic thanks to “time-rich and time-poor people who are not sensitive at the price”.
“It can take 15-20 minutes to prepare a quote after receiving an inquiry, and it’s not uncommon for customers to offer credit card details to make the reservation before they’ve even heard the price,” Stobie said.
The private appeal
Australian industry is not as developed as it is in Europe where private jets are used to fly relatively short distances. High-profile celebrities have been criticized for flying privately on 10-20 minute journeys, generating tons of CO2 emissions.
But in Australia, the Covid pandemic has made private jets more palatable.
Global private jet charter broker Air Charter Advisors, which is headquartered in the United States but operates out of Australia, reported a 104% increase in demand between 2019 and 2021. Demand fell by about 12% in 2022, but has remained stable so far in 2023.
“We do a lot of business in Australia,” company spokesman Adam LeRoy said. “Australian commercial airlines are facing staff shortages and are still somewhat of an unknown in terms of available destinations.”
LeRoy said most of the flights in Australia were relatively short, between Sydney and Melbourne. He said some people fly private so they can travel with their pets, including rabbits.
“This is a service we’ve had a lot of requests for, especially during the pandemic,” LeRoy said. “Most of them are for relocation, but many are just for leisure travel. They just want to take their pet with them.
“No need to fight the masses”
In the wake of the pandemic, consumers across the country have complained of high prices and delayed services.
In December, the consumer watchdog warned airlines about high prices and said it would closely monitor services to make sure they weren’t deliberately slowing the return to full service capacity to boost profit margins.
In the same month, about a quarter of all commercial flights were delayed, according to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. That figure has declined slightly in recent months, with the unsubscribe rate remaining stable at 3.1%.
Australian Air Safaris’ Stobie said the rise in private jet passenger numbers was largely due to wealthy Australians spending big on conveniences. His clients who live in Melbourne’s affluent eastern suburbs aren’t willing to battle traffic to get to Tullamarine Airport in the city’s northwest, an hour’s drive away.
“They don’t have to fight the masses through security and can be on the plane taxiing for departure less than 10 minutes after arriving in our lounge,” Stobie said.
Rick Pegus, the chief executive of Navair, a charter company with hubs in Brisbane, Sydney, Dubbo and Melbourne, said only 20% of those who can afford to charter do so, with most people in Australia rather financially conservative.
“But now we’re getting a higher percentage of those people,” he said. “They are choosing convenience.
“Demand has increased as airlines have really struggled with staffing and restarted post-Covid. This has caused many delays. Lots of bad customer service. The cost has also increased for a variety of reasons.
Pegus said a private flight between Sydney and Melbourne usually costs around $10,000 — nearly 30 times as much as a $350 commercial flight — but argued it was relatively affordable for a group of five who typically fly business. class. A larger plane with eight passengers could cost $17,000.
“Many people staying in luxury accommodations might be spending between $3,000 and $10,000 a night, so why skimp on the way to get there?” said Pego.
Michael Doohan, who owns the Gold Coast-based charter service Global Jet International, said the industry was scrambling to get more jets to meet demand in Australia.
“We have more coming this year. But I mean, one or two more planes isn’t going to meet the demand,” Doohan said.
“There are many new buyers. Not having experienced this before the pandemic they really enjoyed the experience. We’ve probably retained 50% or more of those people who have never rented before and still want to.”
The downside of the jet set
Andrew King, senior lecturer in climate science at the University of Melbourne, said the booming private aviation sector was bad news for the environment.
“The use of private jets is much worse in terms of greenhouse gas emissions than flying regular passenger jets like most of us do on occasion,” King said.
Related: Will flying ever be green?
Private jets are up to 14 times more polluting per passenger than commercial aircraft, with private jets emitting around two tons of CO2 in just an hour, according to Brussels-based climate research group Transport & Environment.
But many charter companies argue that their impact is relatively small, given that private planes account for about 4% of all aviation emissions.
Australia Institute senior economist Matt Grudnoff said the growing popularity of using private jets was mirroring a rise in wealth inequality.
Grudnoff said many families are struggling to make ends meet after consecutive hikes in interest rates, stagnant wages and skyrocketing inflation. He said some would struggle to afford commercial tickets.
“We have a large cohort of people who are really struggling,” she said. “And at the same time, we have this small cohort that’s doing really well with large sums of money to spend on super-luxury items, like charter flights.”