a blue sky and a red carpet with two women wearing slip dresses posing in front of an air traffic control tower with protesters holding anti private jet signs in the distance
Climate activists say that the era of private planes is coming to an end (Image: Shanti Mathias)

SocietyMay 21, 2024

Private jet use is increasing in New Zealand, climate crisis be damned

a blue sky and a red carpet with two women wearing slip dresses posing in front of an air traffic control tower with protesters holding anti private jet signs in the distance
Climate activists say that the era of private planes is coming to an end (Image: Shanti Mathias)

You’ll never set foot in one. But its emissions still effect you. Shanti Mathias reports on a campaign to make private jet owners pay for their emissions in some way.

The private jet passengers saunter down the red carpet, wearing sunglasses and heels; paparazzi cameras flash. The sky is blue, the air control tower in the background is watchful and the climate protesters on each side of the red carpet are holding banners and chanting, “If we allow private jets, climate change is what we get.” 

Of course, this isn’t what private jet users normally look like at all: the lack of a red carpet and paparazzi is the point. Many of the websites offering private jet services around New Zealand instead quietly mention their privacy and discretion. In most major airports around the country, there are terminals set aside for private passengers so they don’t have to mingle with the public. 

The sunglass-wearing “passengers” haven’t disembarked from a plane: they’re part of 350 Aotearoa, a climate action group staging a demonstration against private jets as part of a broader campaign about how airports around the country “roll out the red carpet” for private jet flyers. Within a few minutes, airport security staff roll up in a car and tell the group to pack up. They do. 

a airport baggage terminal with two women wearing silky dresses posing in front of people holding signs that say 'no private jets' and 'luxry emissions + plane foolish"
350 Aotearoa recently staged a demonstration against private jet use at Auckland Airport (Image: Shanti Mathias)

“Private jets are 15 times more polluting than commercial flights,” says Nellie Potter, a 350 Aotearoa spokesperson. “These aren’t necessary emissions, they could easily hop on a commercial flight with everyone else.” 

New Zealand’s aviation sector is one of our fastest-growing sources of emissions, rising 116% from 1990 to 2019, according to a recent article by researchers Paul Callister and Robert McLachlan. They found that while globally, aviation produces about 2.8% of all carbon emissions, Aotearoa’s domestic aviation emissions are 12% of our climate change contribution. Their model suggests that the aviation industry is a major threat to New Zealand’s already-in-jeopardy emissions targets: allocating New Zealand’s slice of a global carbon budget, we only have 10 more years of aviation traffic at 2019 levels without jeopardising our international commitments to keeping warming at 1.5 degrees. And the level of flying seen pre-pandemic in 2019 was higher than even a decade earlier, with flights increasing throughout the 2010s. Despite this, New Zealand’s international aviation emissions still aren’t part of the emissions trading scheme (ETS).

Private jet use in New Zealand seems to be growing. Data released to 350 under the Official Information Act and seen by The Spinoff shows a steady uptick in the number of private planes arriving from overseas since 2011, barring an obvious dip during the pandemic. Queenstown Airport, the only airport that releases information about private jet landings publicly, shows 494 private jet landings in 2023, compared to 287 in (pre-pandemic) 2019. 

Adam Currie, a campaigner from 350 Aotearoa, emphasises that ending private jet flights doesn’t mean eradicating evacuation flights, medical flights, training flights or planes responding to emergency situations: only private jets being used for transport by people who can afford to either own or charter a plane. In other words, it’s a measure that would target only the very, very rich. “As people around the world struggle to put food on the table, the uber rich clink champagne glasses across the sky, at the expense of the climate,” he says. “It’s a slap in the face to people doing it tough.” 

Adding to the injustice, that OIA showed that the structure of Civil Aviation Authority fees means that privately owned planes pay a third of what commercial flights pay per flight hour; private passengers don’t just get to use exclusive terminals, they also pay less overall for the regulation of the aviation sector.

Paul Callister, the aviation emissions expert, agrees that ending use of private jets is an important, straightforward step to reducing Aotearoa’s emissions while impacting very few people. “It is small, but it’s symbolically important: huge income inequalities are mirrored with emissions inequality.” Private jet websites estimate that the cost for a midsize jet charter in New Zealand starts at $4,300 an hour; people who outright own their own planes, like Peter Jackson, spend millions of dollars. In 2010, a three-day trip to Fiji in his $80m plane was quoted as costing $91,500, higher than many people’s annual salaries.

International flight fees don’t include GST, either. “A poor person going on holiday to Mount Maunganui on a bus is paying GST, while someone flying to Tahiti who is much richer doesn’t have to pay [GST] at all,” Callister says. 

The push against private jets is part of a wider reaction to the idea of luxury emissions, also seen in the climate groups engaging with cruise ships across the country. “It’s so easy to cut [private jet] emissions,” says Alva Feldmeier, the co-director of 350, who was also at the Auckland Airport demonstration. “No one gets harmed from not being on a private jet or a megayacht,” Potter agrees. 

But even if most people think that the use of private jets is unfair, what would have to change to disallow them? Despite saying he would always travel commercially, it only took a few months in office before prime minister Chris Luxon was using the Defence Force plane to go to Australia. Meanwhile, a wealthy businessperson gave David Seymour use of his plane during the 2023 election campaign. The companies that operate private jet terminals and planes around the country aren’t forthcoming about what changes they could imagine for the sector: The Spinoff approached more than five for comment on this article, but none provided any on-the-record information. 

The public is invested in private jets, even if they’re not the ones in the planes. Most major airports in New Zealand are at least part-owned by local councils, which can be a point of contention: are they businesses, run to make profit, or assets, operated in the interests of the public – including the interest of reducing emissions? 

lots of planes and lots of tarmac
Air NZ planes parked up at Christchurch airport. Photo: supplied

There have been consistent protests against Christchurch Airport’s proposed Tarras expansion in Central Otago, Wellington airport extending its runway, and Auckland Council selling its airport shares. As Joel MacManus has argued, this public ownership creates incentives that are at odds with each other: on one hand, airport ownership is a business meant to generate revenue for councils, regardless of what kinds of flights are landing there. Conversely, many councils have ambitious climate goals, and have declared climate emergencies, which is at odds with the high emissions of aviation, and private planes in particular. 

“Emissions are going up, and private jets and planes are continuing to use Christchurch airport,” says Tyla Harrison-Hunt, a Christchurch councillor. Christchurch City Holdings, the council-controlled organisation that owns the city’s airport (along with the government) has been embroiled by resignations recently, in part due to disagreements over how much the council should be involved in directly managing its assets. “Those company directors want to be a company first, while [councillors] need to consider a city-first approach that includes climate emissions … it’s misaligned with the company’s goal to grow,” Harrison-Hunt says. 

For the moment, Harrison-Hunt doesn’t think it’s possible for the council to ask the airport to outright ban private jets, or for the council-owned port to ban cruise ships: instead, local government has to provide the airports and ports with investment so they don’t have to make money from luxury emissions. “There’s no reason to have more emissions from private emitters.” Knowing that many of these emissions aren’t counted by the government, he wants councils to push the government to include all emissions in its calculations. 

blue lake mountains and some buildings on the other side of the water
Queenstown is a attractive destination for private jets(Image: Shanti Mathias)

Queenstown Airport, which has a disproportionately high number of private jets landing at its airport due to its reputation as a hub for luxury tourism and billionaire boltholes, is also majority owned by the Queenstown Lakes District Council (the other 25% is owned by Auckland Airport). The airport has a separate terminal for private jets and has at times run out of parking space for privately owned aircraft. In a comment to The Spinoff, an airport spokesperson emphasised that private jets are a “tiny proportion of aircraft movements” at the airport. While the council has flagged aviation emissions in its climate and biodiversity plan – a focus for the region, given that its snowy peaks are particularly vulnerable to heating – the plan doesn’t mention reducing private planes specifically. 

Councillor Esther Whitehead, who is also the climate action co-lead at Climate Action Aotearoa, says that she has suggested to the airport that reducing private flights would “be a straightforward solution to decreasing carbon emissions in line with its own aspirations.” Banning or at least applying a significant tax to private jets would show a meaningful commitment to climate action, she adds, even if reducing the emissions of the aviation sector more broadly is difficult. There’s international precedent: in France, aviation fuel for private aircraft is taxed at 70%.

Questions about the increasing prominence of private jets get to the heart of how New Zealand’s tourism sector markets itself. Previous tourism minister Stuart Nash emphasised wanting to attract “high quality tourists”: the kind who spend lots of money instead of eating “two minute noodles”. Reading between the lines, it suggests the tourism industry would rather have charter-flight type tourists than backpackers, although new minister Matt Doocey has said that all types of tourists are welcome. Spending more money almost always means creating more emissions, which ultimately damages the natural environment people visit New Zealand to see. Researcher Paul Callister worries that the emphasis in the aviation industry on as-yet-unrealised technologies, like electric planes and so-called “sustainable aviation fuel”, is greenwashing at the expense of the poor, again and again. “Airports are subsidised by the public, at everyone’s expense,” he says. “If you’re asking people to catch the bus or train or cycle while they see people fly over them in a jet, untaxed, it’s hard [for the public] to support reducing emissions overall.” 

The invisibility of private jets is part of the problem, says climate activist Adam Currie. From below, planes are anonymous: a dreamy drift of white in the sky above, a dispatch from a life where you could be escaping to tropical waters or ancient monuments, where you have the money to do so thoughtlessly. Kilometres above, there’s no way to tell who owns a plane; no way to see the carbon dioxide generated from its engines incinerating thousands of litres of kerosene. People who use private jets “benefit from operating in the shade,” Currie says. He thinks it’s time for that to change. “In the middle of the climate crisis, we can start by reducing some of the most wasteful emissions.”

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