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Billionaires irk over flight tracking exposure

Billionaires irk over flight tracking exposure
ADS-B stands for automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast, which is a technology that allows an aircraft to be tracked through satellite navigation or other sensors

More than 700,000 people were tracking the flight path of the US military plane believed to be carrying House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on August 2. She touched down in Taiwan at 10:50 pm local time, making Pelosi the first high-ranking American official to visit the self-governing island in 25 years, amid threats of a military response from China.

People were watching the flight’s progress on FlightRadar24, a flight tracking site that uses open-source data to track flights. FlightRadar24 and tools like it, such as ADS-B Exchange, have been particularly useful, as people have used it to track private jet routes live for celebrities such as Taylor Swift and Kylie Jenner to planes to Russian Oligarchs and now, Nancy Pelosi.

FlightRadar24 had so much traffic on last August that the home page reads: “We are seeing high demand in users wanting to access our services. As a temporary measure, there is a waiting room to prevent crashing. Paying subscribers can log in to bypass the waiting room.” FlightRadar24 combines data from several sources, including ADS-B, MLAT, and radar data, aggregated with schedule and flight status information from airlines and airports.

ADS-B stands for automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast, which is a technology that allows an aircraft to be tracked through satellite navigation or other sensors. The ABD-S transponder on aircraft transmits a signal containing information such as the plane’s location, which is then picked up by a receiver connected to FlightRadar24. Most aircraft are required by law to have ADS-B equipment, including in the United States and Europe.

While FlightRadar24 filters some of the data, making it difficult or impossible to track certain private jets, a different site called ADS-B Exchange let users track private planes owned by celebrities and oligarchs: “ADS-B Exchange does not participate in the filtering performed by most other flight tracking websites which do not share data on military or certain private aircraft,” the site says.

MLAT is an acronym for Multilateration, which is used by FlightRadar24 to help locate planes that don’t have ADS-B receivers. MLAT uses a method called Time Difference of Arrival (TDOA) which measures the time it takes to receive the signal from an aircraft with an older transponder in order to determine its location.

FlightRadar24 has additional sources of data, including satellite tracking, which takes data from satellites equipped with ADS-B receivers. These satellites help increase coverage of flights over oceans or where ground-based reception is not possible. The site also receives live data in North America which is based on radar data and from the Open Glider Network (OGN), which is a unified tracking platform for small aircraft.

On the FlightRadar24 site, you can see the world map covered in small plane icons. Each plane is clickable and once you click on it, a popup appears to the left, providing you with information about the flight, including its scheduled and actual takeoff and landing times, where it currently is on its flight route, aircraft information, speed and altitude data, and the data source from which the information was gathered. A majority of the plane icons are yellow, which means the planes were tracked from earth-based radar stations, while the blue ones show planes that were tracked from a satellite.

Ian Petchenik, a spokesman for FlightRadar24, said that the flight tracking website is working on adding more resources, due to “the extreme sustained interest” in tracking Pelosi’s flight. “Today’s (August 2) flight was the most tracked live flight we’ve ever had. Just over 700,000 people tracked the landing of the aircraft in Taipei. The second most tracked live flight was when Alexei Navalny flew back to Russia, from Germany, and that peaked at 550,000,” Petchenik said.

Recently, aircraft have been in the news quite frequently. First, Kylie Jenner faced widespread criticism after it was discovered that she took a 17-minute flight, emitting 1 ton of carbon emissions in doing so.

Following this, the sustainability marketing firm Yard put together a report ranking the celebrities whose private jets have flown the most so far this year, and their corresponding carbon dioxide emissions. At the top of this list was Taylor Swift, whose jet flew 170 times this year so far, and emitted 8,293.54 tonnes of carbon, which is about 1,185 times more than the average person’s total annual emissions.

There are now Twitter accounts that track specific planes with a bot using public ADS-B data. There is @ElonJet, @CelebJets, @SportJets, @Corporate_Jets, and @RUOligarchJets which were all created by Jack Sweeney, a second-year student at the University of Central Florida.

It seems that more and more people are interested in tracking aircraft, especially those belonging to our favorite celebrities because they are realizing how outrageous some of the flights are—such as Floyd Mayweather’s ten-minute flight to Las Vegas. On Twitter, people have been commenting not only about how these celebrities are unbelievably out of touch with the rest of us, but also about the severe climate damage that incurs with each flight.

Flight shame

We have known for a while that the world’s richest 10% produce half of the global carbon emissions. But climate policies have so far tended to omit this issue of carbon inequality. Worldwide, nations have focused on the decarbonization of production within states, ignoring wild differences in consumption habits. And it’s increasingly looking like the climate crisis can’t be addressed while a small but growing group of super-emitters continue to increase their energy consumption and portray such lifestyles as desirable through their social media channels.

Due to their wealth, these elites also exist outside the market-based frameworks implemented to reduce emissions, such as carbon taxes, air passenger duties or carbon allowances for companies. This is also the main issue highlighted by the growing youth movement demanding personal carbon accountability. As Greta Thunberg affirmed early on: “the bigger your carbon footprint, the bigger your moral duty”. And flying, as a very energy-intensive activity, has been identified as particularly harmful and socially undesirable.

This has resulted in a major clash between the social and moral norms surrounding air travel. For decades, frequent fliers have been seen as living desirable lifestyles. To be a global traveller automatically infers a high social standing. Celebrities, in particular, have fostered this perspective through their communication of glamorous, globetrotting lifestyles. The 10 celebrities studied in this research, for example, collectively reach out to 170 million followers on Instagram alone.

But more and more people are beginning to question what is desirable, justifiable, and indeed “normal” to consume. In the case of flying, this has come to be known as “flight shame”. In some circles, air travel is beginning to be framed as a destructive human activity. This is a major shift from the dominating production-oriented approach to climate change mitigation. The new focus on consumption challenges every individual to live within a sustainable personal carbon budget — and argues that this can be the most powerful way of forcing policy and industry change.

The implications of the flying habits of global super emitters are therefore far-reaching. It is clear that governments need to follow the public and pay more attention to consumption in order to stem the growing class of very affluent people who contribute very significantly to emissions and encourage everyone else to aspire to such damaging lifestyles.

Carbon inequality

Calling out the extent of this disparity is key, given that humanity has agreed to stabilize global warming at 2°C. To achieve this goal, emissions of greenhouse gases have to be reduced drastically. The Paris Agreement accepts that the burden should be better shared around: Countries that emit a lot per citizen should make greater contributions to decarbonization.

Stefan Gossling, an environmentalist says, “of course, there will also be disparity within each country: Some high emitters as well as some who hardly contribute to global warming at all. I wanted to find out just how central the highest emitters might be to this question — just how much of the burden we should expect them to take on”.

Celebrities, by definition, are influential and often wealthy. While anecdotal evidence suggests that they are also frequent fliers, it has been difficult to determine their contributions to global warming. Very wealthy people are rarely represented in household surveys. To find out, Gossling tracked the jet-set lifestyles of 10 celebrities by analyzing their ample social media presence.

Gossling analyzed Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts for travel information. The vast emissions caused by these individuals suggest that a very small share of humanity has a very significant role in global warming. This is likely equally true for a much wider range of economic, cultural, and political elites.

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