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9 February 2024

The case for tracking private jets

When individual flights so dramatically endanger our planet, there is a legitimate public interest in who is using them, and how.

By Sarah Manavis

The private jet is finally getting some bad press. In recent years, the public has become aware of the monumental CO2 cost of a single commercial flight, let alone a private one, and are learning about the not-so-secret habits of the rich and famous to use private planes to make egregiously short journeys (Kylie Jenner, for example, made several flights within southern California lasting under 30 minutes). This is in large part thanks to Jack Sweeney: a third-year student at the University of Central Florida who, since 2021, has collated private-jet tracking data via a number of Twitter accounts and through his flight tracking organisation, Ground Control. Though not explicitly a climate activist, Sweeney measures the environmental impact of each private jet journey – calculating the distance travelled, carbon emissions and volume of jet fuel used – and highlights how often certain celebrities make these egregious journeys, illustrating the extreme environmental cost of their personal convenience.

Arguably no one has been hit harder by this attention than Taylor Swift. In 2022, private jet pollution analysis from the sustainability marketing firm Yard suggested Swift was the “biggest celebrity CO2e polluter” of the year, noting that the jet had an average flight time of just 80 minutes, racking up 1,184.8 times more than the average person’s total annual emissions. The public backlash against her jet use has grown as Sweeney has shared the numerous flights she has taken throughout her ongoing world tour. In December, the Daily Mail used Sweeney’s Swift jet tracker to declare that “Taylor Swift’s whirlwind romance with ‘soul mate’ Travis Kelce has produced 138 TONS of CO2 emissions in three months”. On 31 January, Sweeney’s account shared that Swift had taken a 13-minute flight from one side of the American city of St Louis to the other, a distance of just 28 miles, using 240 kilograms of jet fuel and emitting 0.8 tonnes of CO2.

Swift, it seems, is not happy about the coverage. This week, it was reported in the Washington Post that her legal team sent a cease-and-desist letter to Sweeney accusing him of “stalking and harassing behaviour” in December. It claimed that, in tracking Swift’s jet, Sweeney had caused Swift and her family “direct and irreparable harm, as well as emotional and physical distress”, raising her “constant state of fear for her personal safety”. “While this may be a game to you, or an avenue that you hope will earn you wealth or fame, it is a life-or-death matter for our Client,” the letter said.

Swift is not the first celebrity to attack private-jet trackers – nor the first to threaten Sweeney. In December 2022, Elon Musk – the owner of Twitter, now known as X – suspended Sweeney’s account dedicated to tracking Musk’s private jets, @ElonJet. (Sweeney’s general account @CelebJets has also been suspended). Musk described the account as sharing his “assassination coordinates” and in response to the Swift news this week, Musk posted on the site: “Sweeney is an awful human being. Taylor Swift is right to be concerned.”

The information Sweeney uses to track these jets, he emphasised in a statement to the Washington Post, is publicly available. “Her team thinks they can control the world,” he said. Swift’s publicist told the Post that Swift had bought more than double the carbon credits needed to offset her travel before her tour began in March of last year (the same publicist previously told the Washington Post that the data on Swift’s jet was misattributed entirely to her, arguing she regularly loans her jet to other people, meaning they aren’t all Swift’s specific carbon emissions). However, recent reports suggest that the vast majority of projects used to offset greenhouse gas emissions that sell carbon credits are ineffective.

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There is some validity to the privacy concerns voiced by the rich and famous: Swift has had to deal with stalkers in the past, and may well fear for her safety as a result. But the points raised by Sweeney are equally valid: when private jets so dramatically endanger our planet, there is a legitimate public interest in who is using them and how. Is the problem with his collation of public data really unrelated to the PR problems it caused Swift and Musk?

This is an increasingly rare glimpse into how social media still clings to its reputation as “the great leveller”: where ordinary people can, through creative means, hold those with immense status and resources to account. We have learned over the last few years that the true power of social media can be limited. But Sweeney – a student barely in his twenties – has been able to dramatically increase public scrutiny of two of the richest and most influential people in the world, with only already available information and a few Twitter accounts.

The chilling reality is that there are few such avenues remaining through which those with power can be scrutinised. Sweeney’s work is a great public service in a culture where the rich and famous often act with impunity. Of course, the wealthiest people in the world will try to silence individuals who point out the damage their luxury lifestyles are causing. Our hopes the future of the planet shouldn’t have to rest on the future of a jet-tracking social media account.

[See also: The danger of deepfakes goes far beyond Taylor Swift]

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