Wealthy CEOs and athletes have found a loophole that allows them to minimize their tax bills while traveling in style – all at the expense of the everyday traveler who flies commercial and must bear an outsize percentage of aviation taxes in the US.
According to a Bloomberg analysis of government data, operators of private jets pay far less in taxes than airline passengers and other commercial flyers. On a per flight basis, a private jet could generate as little as two percent of the taxes and fees paid by airline passengers on an identical route. Private planes make up about 10 percent of US flights under air-traffic control, yet pay less than 1 percent into a trust fund that finances air-traffic control and other Federal Aviation Administration operations.
Sports teams like the New England Patriots are increasingly investing in private jets to take advantage of these cost-savings, Bloomberg reported.
Of course, after years of declining prices, buyers of private jets can easily get a good deal if they’re willing to buy used. Sales prices for used jets have fallen as much as 35% over the past three years, with the average price falling from $13.7 million in April 2014 to $8.9 million today.
Bloomberg’s analysis prompted some aviation experts to complain that private-jet owners aren’t paying their fair share of taxes.
"By and large, a private aircraft costs the same for the FAA to process as a large aircraft," said Michael Ball, senior associate dean at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of business and co-director of an aviation research consortium. "If you look at it from that standpoint, they clearly aren’t paying their due.”
Private-jet owners, unsurprisingly, must have an army of powerful lobbyists in their employ, because, as Bloomberg explains, the US system where private owners are exempt from the bulk of taxes that commercial airlines pay is different from the system used by most of the rest of the world.
“Unlike most of the rest of the world, which charges fees based on aircraft weight and distance flown, the taxes private jets in the U.S. pay are different from the ones imposed on airlines.
Private aircraft operators pay 21.8 cents per gallon of jet fuel. By contrast, airlines and charter operators have three separate taxes: an excise tax of 7.5 percent on tickets or charter charges, a fee of $4.10 per passenger and 4.3 cents per gallon of jet fuel.”
This means that airline passengers are effectively subsidizing some of the world’s largest corporations and wealthiest people under the current system, said Matthew Gardner, a senior fellow at the nonprofit Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.
"Pretty clearly, we all feel the pain every time we buy an airline ticket and see how big a share of the costs those fees are," Gardner said.
Indeed, the disparity in taxes for comparable private and commercial flights can be staggering:
“A transcontinental flight from New York to Los Angeles on a Virgin America Inc. Airbus SE A320, would be charged about $3,900 in taxes, assuming the plane was 85 percent full and passengers paid the average fare calculated by the Transportation Department’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
The tax bill for a flight between the same cities on a privately owned Bombardier Inc. Global 6000, one of the world’s longest range corporate jets, would be about $525. That’s about 87 percent less than the airline flight.”
And the differences can be even larger if the private plane is a smaller model that burns less fuel.
“A trip from Nashville, Tennessee, to Philadelphia by Southwest Airlines Co., which typically uses a Boeing Co. 737-700 on that route, would typically be charged more than $2,000 in taxes. An Embraer SA Phenom 100E, a smaller and more fuel efficient corporate jet, on the same leg would be assessed about $50, or roughly 2 percent of the Southwest plane.”
Putting their total tax contribution in context, private business plane owners contributed just $104 million to the FAA’s trust fund in 2016 – that amounts to just 0.7 percent of the overall aviation taxes paid that year.
“The FAA estimated that these business planes contributed $104 million to the trust fund in 2016. That amounts to just 0.7 percent of the overall aviation taxes. That compares to 92 percent of the tax payments, or more than $13 billion, that came from U.S. carriers, foreign airlines and charter carriers -- most of which were paid directly by passengers.”
And thanks to their army of lobbyists, private jet owners have virtually guaranteed that the tax disparity will persist.
“Any potential changes in the taxes on private aviation were effectively taken off the table this year by the powerful chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Pennsylvania Republican Bill Shuster.
In order to mute opposition to his plan to create a nonprofit company to operate the air-traffic system, Shuster’s bill would keep the current tax levels for private planes. Shuster’s attempt to mollify private plane owners has had little effect as they continue to oppose his proposal. The bill has passed the committee and is awaiting a vote before the full House.”
As one expert pointed out, if the purpose of the FAA’s tax system was to evenly distribute costs for maintaining the US’s aviation infrastructure among its users, than the current system is an abject failure.
“If the purpose of aviation taxes is to create an equitable way to pay for the air-traffic centers, computers and radars, the existing system is a failure, said Robert Frank, a professor at Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management.
“It doesn’t sound like this fee structure comes even close to imposing fees on the costs respective users impose on the system,” Frank said."
But hey…like they say, life isn’t fair.