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Elon Musk’s Private Jet Is Hypocritical But Not Wasteful

Leftist environmentalists have a new target. In a new hit piece on Ars Technica, Megan Geuss attacks Elon Musk for his extensive use of his private jet, saying, “For a CEO who claims to care about carbon emissions, Musk’s flight habits are eyebrow-raising.”

The article draws from a Washington Post piece that notes that Musk’s jet “flew more than 150,000 miles last year, or more than six times around the Earth, as he raced between the outposts of his futuristic empire during what he has called ‘the most difficult and painful year’ of his career.” The Post piece details an analysis of flight records for the jet.

In comments that show a clear misunderstanding of corporate aviation, Geuss says that some of Musk’s flights are “frivolous” and complains that Musk’s jet flew too much, noting, “While many billionaires have private jets, Musk’s jet stands out in the number of trips it made and miles it logged.” The Post reports that Musk’s jet flew “more than 250 flights,” which Geuss helpfully points out was “100 more flights than the private jet of Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon (and owner of The Washington Post).”

“Perhaps most egregious,” Geuss wrote, “the plane logged a number of 20-mile trips, repositioning from the south side of Los Angeles to the north side.” She acknowledges that Musk was not on board for those flights, and that “Instead, the jet would make the 20-mile repositioning flights to meet the CEO at a closer airport.”

In addition to my role as a Resurgent contributor, I also have a full-time job as a corporate pilot. I’ve spent almost 15 years flying private jets and many of Ms. Geuss’ objections to the use of Musk’s private plane are common misconceptions about corporate flying.

First, Geuss complains about how much Musk uses the jet, but heavy use of a jet is actually a good thing. Owning a corporate jet is expensive and there are many fixed costs such as the cost of the airplane, routine maintenance, hangars, insurance, and the crew. If these fixed costs are spread over a higher number of hours, it makes the airplane cheaper to operate on an hourly basis than an airplane that spends a larger portion of its life sitting on the ground. If you aren’t flying your private jet, there is little point in owning it.

Geuss also complains about the short position flights, but she fails to consider that the reason people and companies buy private planes is to save time. Citing her example of moving the airplane from one side of Los Angeles to the other, I looked at Google Maps to see how long it would take to make the drive from Burbank in the north to Long Beach in the south. As I write this at about 7:30 a.m. Pacific time, it would take an estimated one hour six minutes to make the 35-mile drive via I-5 and I-110 in heavy traffic. It simply is not efficient for the CEO of two billion dollar companies to spend an hour in the LA gridlock.

Thank goodness that the United States has one of the best networks of general aviation airports in the world. The LA basin is home to many reliever airports where Musk and other people with access to private planes can have their pilots meet them and turn a long drive across town to catch a flight into a quick trip down the street. This flexibility enables corporate jet passengers to be able to attend meetings that would have been missed otherwise and be home in time for dinner.

The same applies to a trip that the Post singled out in their article in which Musk’s plane, a 2015 Gulfstream 650ER, “burned thousands of pounds of jet fuel flying 300 miles from LA to Oakland so Musk could view a competitive video gaming event.” The Post calls the trip awkward since it came a few days after Musk tweeted about the world running out of “dead dinosaurs,” but the story acknowledges that Musk met a Tesla board member and worked at two Tesla offices before returning home.

Despite his intelligence, however, Musk is wrong about running out of oil, at least within the short term. Only a few years after peak oil was considered a real possibility, the shale oil revolution has led to an increase in oil reserves for both the United States and the world. We won’t be running out of fossil fuels any time soon.

Musk is also wrong about renewable energy. At this point, there is no renewable fuel that could power his Gulfstream efficiently. Bio-jet fuels do exist but are not readily available and are more expensive than traditional jet fuel. Plant-based fuels also compete for agricultural resources with food for both people and animals.

Musk’s environmental rhetoric may be wrong, but the use of his personal airplane is much more efficient than taking an airline. Musk’s private jet can make the flight in about an hour, which is about the same as an airliner, but Musk and his guests would be able to drive to a local airport and walk directly aboard his plane.

If he took an airline, Musk would not only have to use the airline’s schedule rather than his own, he would have to drive to an airport served by the airline, show up early enough to clear security, and make his way to the gate well before the flight departed. The one-hour trip to Oakland would take half a day or more and the time spent traveling would be lost as well. Unlike on his own jet, Musk would not have the privacy to conduct business while he was waiting on the flight or en route.

The Post article reported that Tesla spent about $700,000 on Musk’s corporate jet travel in 2017. While this may seem exorbitant, it represents a tiny fraction of the $7.014 billion that Tesla is expected to earn this quarter. The piece also noted that Tesla and SpaceX do not pay for Musk’s private trips on the plane.

The big problem with Elon Musk is not that he uses his corporate jet a lot, it is his hypocrisy in attacking fossil fuels while he does so. Musk may be able to make his Tesla factory completely solar-powered, but his airplane is going to keep burning “dead dinosaurs” for the foreseeable future unless he wants to trade his Gulfstream for the Solar Impulse, the groundbreaking airplane that circled the world on solar power in 2016. If he makes the trade, he will give up the time advantage of his jet, however. Solar Impulse took 14 months to make the trip.

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