It’s rare for plane-spotters in the South Ayrshire region to receive any real treats. Prestwick Airport, the smaller of two serving Glasgow and the western Central Belt, is mainly dominated by Ryanair 737s ferrying sun-thirsty Scots to Alicante or Tenerife; once you’ve seen one of those, you’ve really seen them all.

So imagine the bounty recently, when not only did large aircraft from the four corners of the globe use Prestwick as a handy arrival point for the Cop26 climate conference, but so did hundreds of private jets owned by corporations, world leaders, billionaire tech CEOs and celebrities.

It was, one spotter told the BBC, like "Christmas come early." But the wider public didn’t quite see it like that. All week, high net worth green warriors stood at lecterns and banged the drum for cutting carbon emissions – then departed in private planes that produce more emissions per passenger than commercial flights.

"Hypocrite airways", one newspaper put it, with a map showing private flights from all over the world descending on Prestwick. Jeff Bezos, Prince Charles, Prince Albert of Monaco, Bill Gates...

Even Boris Johnson, fresh from addressing world leaders at the Cop26 opening ceremony, opted to hurtle back to London via private charter plane.

While the world is burning, the private aviation industry has been booming. A recent report by the campaign group Transport & Environment found that while Covid paralysed commercial aviation, by August 2020 private jet traffic had returned to pre-pandemic levels.

Luxury aircraft brokers report that it’s the busiest things have been since just prior to 2008 – the previous industry peak. New deliveries of jets are now at around 700 per year, still down on the 1,300 delivered in 2008, but climbing.

To find out a little more, I walked to a local high street private jet dealer this week. The Jet Business, in London’s West End, is actually the only place in the world where you can walk in off the street, browse a showroom and then buy a jet.

"Time is money, buy a jet", a neon sign on the wall reads. A salesman suggests I wait for Steve Varsano, the CEO, "in the fuselage". He means it literally: in the front window is the mid-section of a full scale luxury Airbus A319.

"The business has definitely been good, but of course we’re bouncing back from zero," Varsano says. "When Covid hit, the world shut down. Deals were getting cancelled, the charter market went down because nobody could travel anywhere, and more so here, because every time you get on a plane you’re pretty much crossing a border. But generally now, everywhere in the world, the market is much busier."

There are various reasons for this. For one, he says, people who can afford first class commercial seats see filling a private jet as healthier at the moment – less contact with strangers, fresher air, that sort of thing, and about the same price at roughly £5,000 per person in a 12-seat jet crossing the Atlantic.

It’s also easier, when airports are thick with Covid checks and queues. Then there is the simple matter that rich people love private jets, and the rich are getting richer. Demand always outstrips supply in Varsano’s industry.

"There’s a lot of reasons that have pushed people over the line to say, ‘I’m going to fly private, it makes more sense to me,’’ he says.

A gruff, 65-year-old, Versano has seen the industry balloon over the decades.Once, his customers were American or British CEOs in their 60s, plus the odd celebrity (he once sold a Learjet to Frank Sinatra). Now it could be 20-year-old start-up founders, Asian business owners, Russian oligarchs or pop stars.

They obviously care about the price and level of luxury they’ll be receiving – a new, fully fitted-out luxury Airbus A319, a sliver of which we’re sitting in now, would sell for around £100 million, but these days they also always ask about emissions.

"It’s in every conversation, every panel discussion... The industry is very attuned to it, even though it’s the tiniest, tiniest contribution to the carbon footprint. Airlines contribute 2 per cent of global emissions; the corporate jet world is 2 per cent of that 2 per cent. And there’s easy ways to pay to offset your carbon footprint."

Britain is Europe’s biggest polluter from private air travel. The Transport & Environment report found that the ‘dirtiest’ route in the world, by CO2 emissions, was Luton to Teterboro, the New Jersey airport that’s a 20-minute drive from Central Park. The fourth, fifth, sixth and tenth positions involve Hampshire’s Farnborough Airport or Luton.

But Varsano sees the scapegoating of his industry, and especially complaining about Bezos or Johnson using private jets, as disingenuous. ‘That’s naive to think that’s not going to happen. You can’t travel around in a horse and buggy. It’s 2021, this is the way the world operates today [...] Everybody can’t be Greta."

The 22,000 private and corporate jets worldwide aren’t all ferrying people between business meetings; many are just rich people on holiday who don’t like queues, but Varsano’s argument is that people like Bezos run the world’s most important companies, so they need their jets to keep the world moving.

"You have a million employees – is it really smarter to fly cheap? You can’t talk to your staff, you’re disconnected, you can’t adjust your schedule, you have to sit in a terminal with other people so can’t talk freely," Varsano says. "...It’s easy to throw rocks, but at the end of the day they contribute so much more to the world than they take."

Bill Gates called owning a private jet his ‘guilty pleasure’. Billionaire investor Warren Buffett dubbed his first private plane "The Indefensible", before realising how useful it was and renaming it "The Indispensable."

Soon, Varsano predicts, the ‘clean’ aviation fuel and carbon offsetting that currently soothes the guilty consciences of the rich as they take off will be replaced by hydrogen. After that, he reckons, they’ll be in entirely clean energy, pilotless drones, which could replace private jets altogether. "Imagine the excitement of plane spotters when that all starts happening."

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