CEO Life

Accounting For Carbon Concerns

Environmental protestors in Europe have been snipping fences and handcuffing themselves to Gulfstreams to protest the environmental effects of private aviation. The SEC is breathing down companies’ necks over climate-change mitigation. Some executives have a personal passion for sustainability. For some or all these reasons, more CEOs and plane owners are “carbon counting” private flights and fleets these days.

The aviation industry has been scurrying to address their concerns. New apps, carbon-offset schemes and green-certification programs are being introduced to help clients validate their environmental chops, even as private flying works on longer-term solutions such as electric planes and biofuels.

Accounting for the carbon footprint plane usage is important to flyers such as Jim Sobeck, who uses a fractional-share program to fly to places like the Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Georgia, and Long Island, New York, where his wife is from. “The carbon-offset program made me feel better about flying private, and it’s very economical,” says Sobeck, who just sold his company, New South Construction Supply. “And it’s not a big price to pay.”

A Niche Priority

At the same time, some players are less confident of client demand. “You see companies like Sentient, which treat sustainability like safety—something they believe is integral to what they are doing—and, at the other end, providers who don’t even want to offer offsets as an option, for a variety of reasons,” says jet-card expert Doug Gollan.

Sentient provides a carbon-counting system—whether clients want it or not. The company built the promise of fulfilling a 300 percent carbon-emissions offset into its fare structure, branding it part of “a more thoughtful way to fly.” Sentient counts in its carbon footprint even water vapor, nitrous oxide, aerosols and other outputs to the ecosystem.

“Ultimately, especially for Corporate America, you are going to have to show your carbon footprint,” asserts Andrew Collins, co-CEO of Flexjet and head of its Sentient unit. “It’s with planes almost like it is with sustainable buildings and LEED standards: an official seal. So we built it into our back-office infrastructure, where every mile is tracked.”

Similarly, the on-demand charter-flight booking app Fly Air has begun assessing carbon footprint based on a formula that includes variables such as the type, size and age of the aircraft, and what type and how much fuel it is using. “We build it automatically into the app, so whether you are cognizant of ESG commitments or not, with each flight, you as a person are still making a commitment,” says Fly Air Founder Stuart Bullard. “We decided this was good for our future, for the industry and for our planet, so why not bake it in?”

Volato, the fractional-share company used by Sobeck, itemizes a carbon-offset cost that amounts to “tens of dollars” on a typical flight on one of its 17 Honda Jets that costs “tens of thousands of dollars,” says CEO Matt Liotta.

For Corporate America, private aviation is just another area where pressure to reduce carbon pollution is rising. While private aviation accounts for only 0.2 percent to 0.4 percent of all global carbon emissions, according to industry estimates, it’s become a vulnerability for big business.

Activist Actions

Many company chiefs in the U.S. were jarred by news over the summer from Europe, where eco-protesters stalled private-aviation operations at Geneva Airport for more than an hour, disrupted an industry conference in Brussels and broke onto the ramp at Sylt Airport in Germany before defacing a Cessna Citation with orange paint and gluing themselves to the business jet and the tarmac.

“There’s more ‘flight shaming’ and moral suasion in Europe, and it’s a little more settled issue there,” says David McCown, president of the Americas for Chapman Freeborn air charters. “In the [U.S.], you don’t have everybody buying into the idea that man-made activities are causing global warming.”

Still, activists in America have attempted to embarrass private-plane owners by accessing the public aircraft-geolocation system known as Automatic Dependent Surveillance–Broadcast and assessing hypothetical “carbon penalties” to flight activities and plans. There is also growing institutional pressure on business aviation, especially from the SEC, which continues to refine a proposed new rule that would require public companies to provide detailed reporting of their climate-related risks and plans to transition to “net zero” status. “In 2024, as part of their filings, companies will have to start reporting fuel emissions,” says Lana Yaghi, principal in the Miller Canfield law firm.

As a result, “We’re looking into some kind of carbon-counting process as we speak,” says the head of aviation for a major, publicly held, Midwest-based retail chain with four jets, who declines to be identified. Flight operations “are just a blip on the radar for a company of our size, and I’m not getting pressure. I’m just trying to stay ahead of it so that when they do come to me, I can say, ‘Here’s what I’m doing.’”

Helping companies out are services such as 4Air, a startup that brokers carbon offsets for private aviation. The National Business Aviation Association invests in programs to help members with their environmental credentials, including certifications in the areas of flights, ground support, infrastructure and operations. “Every aspect of our membership has been interested in doing this, and for them, it’s a great opportunity to showcase what they’re doing and have it audited,” says Stewart D’Leon, NBAA’s director of environmental and technical operations.

Some private aviation clients are pushing for the use of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), a lower-carbon alternative to regular jet fuel. “It’s all the rage, but it isn’t widely available yet in the U.S.,” says Gregg Brunson-Pitts, CEO of Advanced Aviation Team, a charter brokerage. “It’s very expensive and in tight supply.”

A Niche Priority?

There are holdouts to the carbon-counting push. Some major plane makers, such as Cirrus Aircraft, affirm that they haven’t gotten into carbon-counting assistance. About 70 percent of respondents to a recent survey of private flyers said that carbon-offset efforts weren’t important to them. “To these people, it’s just a factor, like Wi-Fi on board is a factor,” says Gollan. “They see it in the news, but the reason they’re spending a lot of money to fly privately is that it serves their purpose.”

And private flyers aren’t willing to pay a la carte to go green. Even among the 30 percent in Gollan’s survey who said sustainability is important, by a three-to-one ratio they believed a company’s use of SAFs should be included in its base hourly fee for jet cards. “They don’t want to be charged extra for it,” Gollan says.

Jeff Harris is one chief who’s unmoved by carbon counting. “I don’t have any feelings toward it,” says the CEO of Furnitureland South, who frequently uses the company’s Honda Jet. “There are so many aircraft that fly every day that I don’t know if it really makes much of a difference to me personally. It was always a goal of mine to make enough money one day to fly privately and skip commercial flight and the frustrations that come with it.”


Dale Buss

Dale Buss is a long-time contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other business publications. He lives in Michigan.

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