Last summer, Kylie Jenner put a post on Instagram that encapsulated, in just one photograph and a caption of obscene boastfulness, the worst excesses of the world’s most popular social media influencers. The photograph showed Jenner, the make-up tycoon and sister of Kim Kardashian, in an embrace with Travis Scott, the rapper and her on-off boyfriend, in front of two whopping private jets. She wrote: “You wanna take mine or yours?”

You don’t become the fifth most followed person on Instagram, with 389 million followers, by worrying about coming across as smug and tin-eared. And you’ve got to hand it to her. A ten-part mini-series could be commissioned about the state we’re in as the climate crisis bites, and it would not cover the issues as concisely as that one post. In response, social media ignited like a hillside in Provence during a drought. Jenner was accused of being a “climate criminal” and found herself the new lightning rod for green campaigners. Others, however, may not have been so quick to judge. Her follower count grew and the jet still features on her feed.

Kylie Jenner was accused of being a “climate criminal” in response to her Instagram post.

Some of the world’s richest people, including Elon Musk, have fought to keep their travel arrangements out of the public eye. They want a private jet to be private. But celebrities like Jenner, who give the public carefully curated glimpses of their glitzy fuselages, are at the center of the private jet paradox: by flaunting their trophy assets they both drive demand for private aviation and create the sort of negative headlines that fuel fear in the private aviation industry.

The planes in the sky above us are a constant reminder of how we are polluting the planet and most of us have a nagging sense that we should fly less. Private planes are one of the least sustainable ways to travel. Your carbon footprint is estimated to be between five and fourteen times that of someone packed onto a commercial flight with many more passengers.

Nevertheless, people love to fly private. America is by far the biggest market, but in Europe the UK ranks alongside France and Germany as the countries with most business jet activity, according to figures from WingX, a data and insights company for the business aviation industry. Last year private jet flights from the UK reached a record level. This was driven by pent-up demand for travel after Covid and an increased desire among passengers to avoid sharing cabins with strangers and their ominous coughs.

“Kylie Air” is ready for takeoff.

More than 22,000 business jets have departed from UK airports in January to May this year, which is 7 percent down on last year but still up on the position just before the pandemic. In 2019 the market had recovered to eclipse the peak that occurred before the 2008 financial crash. The economic conditions after the crisis created a flat decade for those who sell private planes, or a share in them, or who run charter companies. Businesses either could not afford private jets or were queasy about being seen using them in straitened times.

Now there is another reason for them to be uneasy. “Corporations are pretty wary about using business jets. It’s kind of climate toxic, rather than crazy-spending toxic,” says Richard Koe, managing director of WingX.

Last month industry leaders converged in Geneva for EBACE (the European Business Aviation Convention and Exhibition). “It’s going to be headlined around sustainability and climate and how the industry should respond. It is the number one topic,” Koe said prior to the meeting. The industry is in a good position to innovate by offsetting emissions and developing new technology, he said. “But that probably won’t be enough to get it out of the glare of negative publicity.” The common public perception of flying in a private jet is simple. “It’s just seen as egregiously wasteful.”

You don’t become the fifth most followed person on Instagram, with 389 million followers, by worrying about coming across as smug.

The antics of celebrities do not help. “But, on the other hand, for many celebrities it’s just another sort of bling, which on Instagram is wildly popular. It’s shot down in flames by the activists, but pictures of yourself flying on a private jet are probably a driver for people to charter a private jet. It’s a status symbol.”

The common public perception of flying in a private jet is simple: it’s just seen as egregiously wasteful.

Jenner’s status symbol is what she calls “Kylie Air”, a Bombardier Global 7500 bought for an estimated $70 million in 2020 and kitted out to her taste. The exterior features the name of one of her products, Kylie Skin, and a strip of Barbie pink. Inside there are two bathrooms, a master suite, white leather seats, pink satin pillows and Hermès blankets. Her sister Kim Kardashian has a custom-built Gulfstream jet, which cost more than $100 million, with interiors designed by Waldo Fernandez, whose previous clients have included Elizabeth Taylor and Brad Pitt. She once warned Jenner not to get fresh spray tan on the cashmere seats.

Jenner removed the his-and-her jets post from her account but isn’t shy of posting jet pictures. Earlier this year, she put up a selection of Polaroid photographs of her and her children in a jet cabin captioned, “Adventures with my angels.” Her sister posted pictures of herself and friends on “Kim Air” preparing to fly to Las Vegas last year for her birthday. Bad weather forced them to turn back but she wrote, “It’s all about the journey anyway.”

Last summer, Yard, a British digital marketing company, compiled a league table of the top celebrity jet polluters.

Jenner offers a glimpse into her charmed life.

Taylor Swift was unhappy to score a No 1 hit here, after her jet reportedly made 170 flights in the year to the end of July, clocking up the equivalent of 16 days in the air and an average flight time of 80 minutes and a distance of 139.36 miles. The emissions were calculated, using data from the @CelebrityJets Twitter account, to be the equivalent of 8,300 tons of CO2, 1,184.8 times the average person’s annual emissions. Floyd Mayweather, the boxer, was second on the list and other very frequent flyers were Steven Spielberg, Kim Kardashian and Mark Wahlberg.

“Taylor’s jet is loaned out regularly to other individuals,” a spokesperson for Swift told Rolling Stone. “To attribute most or all of these trips to her is blatantly incorrect.” This “it wasn’t all me” excuse seems rather to miss the point, unless somehow her physical absence from her jet on some journeys affected the quantity of its emissions or the harmfulness of the particulate. A better defense might have been that she is a touring artist who needs a plane to move quickly from venue to venue across continents.

It is true that often planes are moved, without passengers, to ready them for another passenger or — and this still sounds profligate and polluting — to park at an airport that has more, or cheaper, capacity. But this may not explain all short hops.

In April, Marcus Rashford was reported to have spent $305,000 hiring a plane to go to New York and back with his fiancée, Lucia Loi. Footballers inhabit a world where private planes are used routinely, often supplied by sponsors. Clubs have also been criticized for unsustainable travel choices. Manchester United once flew 100 miles for a game against Leicester City.

Many celebrities seem to struggle to balance their no doubt earnest desire to spread a green message, with the temptations of a convenient and comfortable ride in a private jet, which comes with slippers and personal service and no airport queues or people asking for selfies. Leonardo DiCaprio once traveled on a private jet to receive an award for his environmental campaigning.

Taylor Swift, whose jet reportedly made 170 trips in 2022, lands in Los Angeles with her now ex-boyfriend Joe Alwyn.

Prince Harry and the Duchess of Sussex speak about climate change regularly, but also sometimes fly privately. He has said that they nearly always take commercial flights but that “unique circumstances” occasionally mean he can’t do that and he offsets his carbon emissions. A private jet, a Bombardier Global 6000, that the couple took after the Platinum Jubilee was calculated to have resulted in their carbon footprint being ten times what it would have been if they had flown commercial.

One problem for those who own their own planes is that it is much harder to be discreet these days (and some of them, believe it or not, do wish to be) when there are pesky teenage sleuths like Jack Sweeney around. Now a student at the University of Central Florida, Sweeney wrote code to retrieve publicly available data about all federally registered planes and post it to his Twitter accounts, including one that followed Musk’s jet. When everyone is being urged to think about how much they fly, the featured jet owners may have found it embarrassing for all their flights to be logged in this way. But the publicly stated indignation mainly focused on security and privacy issues.

Musk offered Sweeney $5,000 to take it down. Sweeney asked for $50,000. No deal. But when Musk took over Twitter, he took the accounts down. They still exist on Instagram where you can get updates as Musk’s jet leaves Napa; Michael Jordan’s plane takes off from Malaga in Spain en route to West Palm Beach, Florida; Oprah Winfrey’s Gulfstream lands in Santa Barbara; Floyd Mayweather heads to Las Vegas; or Tom Cruise’s Challenger (one of a few jets he owns, including one that is reported to have a hot tub on board) arrives in Cleveland, Ohio. There is no way of knowing whether the owners themselves are actually on the flights.

More than 22,000 business jets have departed from UK airports in January to May this year.

Bernard Arnault, the founder of LVMH, the luxury goods behemoth and the world’s richest man, got so fed up with his movements being tracked that he sold his company jet. “With all these stories, the group had a plane and we sold it,” he told a radio station. “The result now is that no one can see where I go, because I rent planes when I use private planes.”

Jack Sweeney is the 20-year-old college student who tracks Elon Musk’s private jet on social media.

Earlier this year Labour tried to make jets a political issue by accusing Rishi Sunak of behaving “like an A-list celeb” after he flew in a small RAF plane to Blackpool, his third private trip in ten days. It might be interesting to see if such attacks get any traction in the election campaign. Should prime ministers get a pass? Traveling to and from Blackpool by train makes for a long day and he is running the country, not just an Instagram account.

Noises are being made in Europe about taxing private aviation. In France the transport minister, Clément Beaune, floated the idea of taxing or regulating private jets to reduce their use. Last year domestic flights between French cities that could be reached by train in less than two and a half hours were banned. The restrictions initially affect three routes. Meanwhile, Schiphol airport in Amsterdam will ban private jets from 2025. Belgium is imposing new taxes on private planes at Brussels airport, where they were exempt.

The UK was the top destination for private jets in Europe according to Dutch research, commissioned by Greenpeace. The campaign group called for a ban on private jets, with exemptions for medical, some government and research flights. “It is the most polluting transport you can possibly choose,” says Klara Maria Schenk, a transport campaigner for Greenpeace. She points out that a private jet can produce two tons of carbon dioxide in an hour. The average per capita CO2 emissions in the UK is 5.2 tons a year.

“Many private jet trips in Europe are short and could easily be taken by train,” Schenk argues. Fifteen percent are less than 150 miles and 55 percent are less than 470 miles. “Most of these would be replaceable.”

British prime minister Rishi Sunak and his wife, Akshata Murty, arrive in Tokyo for a G7 summit.

The argument that these are important business flights, she says, is undermined by the fact that some of the heaviest traffic from the UK is to the Côte d’Azur in summer. “It’s not a business hub, let’s be honest,” Schenk says.

In her book, Serious Money, Walking Plutocratic London, Caroline Knowles, a professor at Queen Mary University of London, recounts a conversation with a butler to a Middle Eastern royal. His boss traveled on a private jet on a whim to Geneva and then to Paris and from there to Madrid, just because there was a particular painting he wanted to see in the Prado. “It’s not even Bill Gates [saying], ‘I need to be there.’ It’s, ‘I wanted to see a picture and I couldn’t bear to go any other way.’ These are very spoiled people. Anyone who’s rich enough to run or charter a private plane is pampered in so many ways. There are all those demands that remind me of rather indulged children.”

To get a sense of what it’s like to sit in the cabin of a private jet I go to Park Lane, next to Hyde Park in London. There, by the Hilton, you can enter the showroom of the Jet Business, sit in a chunk of fuselage from an Airbus A319 and talk to Steve Varsano, jet broker to the world’s jet-less billionaires. Buying one of these VIP airliners would set you back anything from $30 to $130 million depending on its age. There are about 250 of them used privately around the world, half by heads of state.

Very few of those who buy from Varsano are celebrities. You’d need to be flying at least 200 hours a year to justify having a jet, he says. The average jet is used for 400 hours a year or about 200,000 miles. He dislikes the term private jet, preferring “corporate jet”, and says 90 percent are used for business. “Corporations buy these airplanes as time machines, as a business tool.”

Bernard Arnault, the founder of LVMH, the luxury goods behemoth and the world’s richest man, got so fed up with his movements being tracked that he sold his company jet.

Is it bad for the industry to have people showing off about jets on social media, triggering a public backlash? “Of course. Most people are normal people and this is putting it in their face. If our industry is 1 percent of the 1 percent, those people you are talking about are 1 percent of 1 percent of 1 percent of the 1 percent. But they make the most noise and that’s what gets the most publicity. It’s unfortunate, from a PR standpoint, but it doesn’t affect our business.” Varsano, who is from New Jersey and has been selling jets for 40 years, wants everyone to get some perspective. “Thirty percent of the carbon emission problem in the world is from China; 15 percent from cows. How many people are going to stop eating meat to save the planet? Corporate jets are 0.04 percent of the output of carbon emissions.”

Nevertheless, he says, everybody in the industry is focused on sustainability. He has just returned from a conference on electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft and has great hopes that new technological solutions will be found to reduce our emissions.

But we won’t stop flying. “We’re in 2023. We’re not going back to horses — the world is global. Bernard Arnault has got a business worth $500 billion. You can’t do that by not having a corporate jet. It just doesn’t happen.”

Why not fly business class on a scheduled flight? “If I want to go to Lyons and then Milan and Amsterdam, that’s going to take me a week. I have a corporate jet, I can do that today and be home for dinner. If I have 500,000 employees, I don’t want to be sitting in Heathrow and getting canceled. And I can’t talk confidentially on the plane. I can’t adjust my schedule. It doesn’t work.”

I’m intrigued, though, that London to Nice is one of the busiest routes for private jets. “They are conducting business. If you’re in Monaco, if you’re in St. Tropez, if you’re in St. Moritz skiing, you are conducting business 24/7. Most people who have corporate jets don’t have downtime.”

He is concerned that governments may start introducing new rules for private aviation. Will he still have a business in ten years? “I hope so. We might be selling more electric-powered flying cars but, until we have the Star Trek ‘Beam me up, Scotty’ [technology], people are going to be wanting to travel from point A to point B.”

Clive Jackson, the founder and chairman of Victor, a private air charter company, believes his industry is not doing enough to become more sustainable. He placed an advert in the Financial Times with the line, “You don’t always have to fly private.” He says his clients should ask if their flight is really necessary.

But because people will still fly, and in greater numbers, he champions carbon offsetting schemes. For four years his company paid to offset his passengers’ flights. Jackson accepts that carbon offsetting schemes are not perfect, but believes they will improve. “Positive action, imperfect as it may be, is better than no action.” He stopped paying at the start of this year, saying that it was time for the passengers to take over. Instead, he offered them the chance to use sustainable aviation fuel, which is made from biomass, waste and even cooking oil.

One in five is paying for it. It works out at very roughly $1,300 extra on their bill, compared with a carbon offset payment of $65-$90. “Even those Instagram celebrities can go, ‘Yeah, I did it, but you know what, I paid 20 times more than the carbon offset because I flew with sustainable aviation fuel.’ ”

Those who still want to own their own jet have one more small problem. With all the uncertainties in the world there are hold-ups in the supply chain. Order yours now and you’ll be waiting two years. Not great for those who want everything, everywhere, all at once.

In the meantime you could pretend. Those who are not rich enough to be one of the world’s most insufferable show-offs but share their world view can hire a studio designed to look like the interior of a luxury jet. There they can photograph themselves sipping champagne as if they are jetting into Coachella and upload the images to Instagram in the hope that their efforts will be rewarded eventually with elevation to alpha influencer level. Then they will be able to afford to hire — or buy! — their own plane with which to wow all their envious followers, who also want to join the Kylie Jenneration.

Damian Whitworth is a features editor at The Times of London