For those with the requisite dough, the allure of private jets and business class is undeniable. However, the economics of flying privately versus commercially might surprise you.
Only a matter of weeks after Qatar Airways’ CEO claimed that first class was totally pointless compared to business class, it now seems that business class is having its own usefulness questioned after business class prices have soared to such an extent that chartering a private plane may be more cost-effective for some high-value flyers. While more humble travellers are abandoning business for premium economy, the rich might be abandoning it for a different plane altogether.
Following in the footsteps of our friends over at Simple Flying, we’ve decided to delve into all the actors that could come into this complex decision, comparing flight types, costs, time savings — a particularly potent part of the equation for business travellers (time is money, as the famous saying goes) — as well as comfort and the all-important carbon cost of this decision, an increasingly central factor in an increasingly sustainability-centric world.
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The first scenario to consider is a short-haul domestic flight; our friends at Simply FLying use a Houston to Atlanta route as their example. For a group of four travellers, the options are to charter an Embraer Phenom 100 private jet or opt for domestic business class on United Airlines or Delta. Chartering a private jet could cost between $3,800 and $4,800 USD per hour, a total of up to $19,200 USD for the four-hour roundtrip.
On the other hand, flying domestic business class would only set the group back between $400 and $550 USD each, totalling up to $2,200 USD for all four passengers. The cost difference between the two options is pretty self-evident. If you factor in the increased carbon emissions on a per-passenger basis from the private jet, the disparity becomes even more pronounced.
While private could offer some obvious advantages in terms of comfort, the real difference is in time efficiency: assuming the group arrives at the airport two hours before the flight and departs thirty minutes after landing, a roundtrip commercial journey would take nearly nine hours, while a private jet journey would take just four hours. If the group values five hours of their time more than the additional cost, flying privately could prove to be the better value.
If we look at a medium-length flight, it’s a similar story. Let’s consider a flight from New York to Los Angeles for a group of eight travellers, choosing between an Embraer Legacy 500 private jet or flying first class on American Airlines’ flagship Airbus A321. Chartering the Legacy 500 could cost between $9,000 and $10,000 USD per flight hour, costing up to $110,000 USD for the eleven-hour roundtrip journey. In contrast, flying first class on American would cost approximately $2,500 USD per passenger, totalling $20,000 USD for the entire group.
Here, the private jet is over five times more expensive than first-class commercial travel, as well as emitting a boatload more carbon per person. Moreover, as the flights get longer, the private jets actually become comparatively less comfortable than the commercial planes, given the absence of lie-flat beds. However, as with the short-haul flight, time savings could be the only swaying factor…
Finally, let’s look long-haul, weighing up a journey from New York and London. For a group of twelve travellers, the options are to charter a private Bombardier Challenger 605 or book out the entire first-class cabin of a British Airways Boeing 777. Chartering the Challenger could cost $11,000 to $14,000 USD per flight hour, hitting a total of $210,000 USD for the roundtrip. Whereas first class on British Airways would cost between $3,500 and $4,500 USD per passenger, totalling up to $54,000 for the group.
Once again, the private flight is substantially more expensive, while the commercial options wins out yet again on both comfort and carbon; British Airways offers fully-flat beds in first class, whereas the private jet would likely only provide large recliners. However, the private flight offers unmatched convenience, with little waiting time on either end. Passengers could complete the New York to London journey in a meagre eight hours, representing significant savings for time-conscious passengers.
So, while it might seem that on the surface commercial is cheaper but private jets offer potential savings for very-high-value travellers for whom a precious few hours can mean the difference between tens- if not hundreds of thousands of dollars…. doesn’t this all miss some quite obvious but seemingly overlooked points? Allow me to direct you to our recent article on first-class bookings soaring 107% as the cost of living crisis bites…
While Simple Flying’s article rightly and very accurately chalks up the difference in carbon emissions between business class and private jets, it doesn’t seem to give much time to the difference in carbon emissions between business class and all the less luxurious alternatives: the provisions and space required for each seat in the upper two classes on a commercial plane make them up to nine times more carbon intensive than their counterparts in economy or premium economy, according to On Carbon. So, rather than weighing up between the two most luxurious options available, should businesspeople be considering more humble travel arrangements?
Moreover, we need to consider whether air travel is necessary in the first place — regardless of cabin class — in an era where technology enables virtual communication and remote work. And before anyone accuses me of being a ‘snowflake’ tree-hugger, this makes sense from a cashflow perspective too: encouraging businesses to embrace digital communication methods and reduce reliance on frequent and luxurious business travel would benefit both the environment and their bottom line. So, once again, instead of comparing two very exclusive, expensive, and environmentally-damaging options, maybe we need to ask whether air travel is necessary altogether.
In the world of soaring business-class prices and extravagant private jets, it’s time for high-value flyers to ponder: Should they stick with the lavish skies, or might they find a smarter, more sustainable route to their destination? Perhaps it’s time for a rethink that could save both precious hours and the planet’s health.