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Private jets descend on Montreal for F1 Grand Prix in emissions-heavy weekend

Haas driver Nico Hulkenberg of Germany, second right, laughs with fellow drivers from L-R, Red Bull Racing driver Sergio Perez, Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Aston Martin driver Lance Stroll of Canada, during the drivers' press conference at the Canadian Grand Prix Thursday, June 6, 2024 in Montreal. Nico Hulkenberg, Sergio Perez, Lewis Hamilton, Lance Stroll - Christinne Muschi, The Canadian Press

Formula One does things big.

At the Canadian Grand Prix(opens in a new tab), its race cars top 300 kilometres per hour. The track in Montreal amounts to a 305-kilometre contest over 70 white-knuckle laps. Last year, a record 345,000 fans packed into the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. Past attendees include Rihanna, Al Pacino, Penelope Cruz and Tom Brady.

But biggest -- and priciest -- of all may be the private jets carrying thrill-seeking visitors set to descend on the city this weekend for the event.

About 115 business jets will land in the Montreal area Friday through Sunday, which amounts to a 50 per cent spike from the daily average over the preceding month, according to projections provided to The Canadian Press by analytics firm WingX.

Last year saw 139 business jet arrivals from the U.S., Canada and as far as Italy on the event weekend, up 43 per cent from 2019, in line with rising demand for private air travel since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Emissions, too, are slated to rise, due to the race itself but especially the aircraft activity around it.

"The private jets obviously have an outsize impact, because a private jet is bringing so few people on it, so inefficiently," said Thomas Green, a policy adviser at the David Suzuki Foundation.

"And it can be even worse if the private jet is travelling to the event with some people and then going back empty somewhere else to pick up another flight if it's chartered."

Indeed, some 20 business jets made multiple landings in Montreal for last year's Grand Prix weekend. After touching down, some likely took off without passengers in order to shuttle more back to the city over the next couple of days.

Pinning a precise number on the carbon dioxide emissions from a flock of private jets can be hard. But in general, the pricey planes are five to 14 times more polluting than commercial aircraft on a per-passenger basis, according to Brussels-based advocacy group Transport & Environment.

A private jet can emit two tonnes of carbon dioxide in a single hour, the organization says.

Compare that with data from the Canada Energy Regulator, which says the average Quebec resident accounts for fewer than nine tonnes over an entire year.

"When we look at global aviation passenger emissions, just one per cent of people cause 50 per cent of the emissions," Green said.

"That's a lot of the super rich and it's a lot of the executive class taking a lot of business class flights or, again, the private jets. And they've been increasing quite quickly."

That class includes the champagne-soaked world of F1, where big-money sports melds with European aristocracy in a high-octane show of competition, glamour and ego.

Although seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton reportedly sold his cherry-red Challenger -- made by Quebec's Bombardier Inc. -- for environmental reasons, current leader Max Verstappen wings around the globe on a Dassault Falcon private jet purchased from billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson. Some teams, including Scuderia Ferrari, have partnered with private firms such as VistaJet for charter flights.

Barry Prentice, who heads the University of Manitoba's transport institute, says the role of private planes in fostering business relationships, economic activity and tourism should factor into equations of their overall impact.

"Time is money," he said.

"It's hard to do a deal over the internet ... You need to meet in person for negotiations, as well as personally going and having a look -- how is the factory doing? You can't do that by Zoom."

Convenience and even wasted wages can also play a role in private jets' appeal.

"We've all been slogging through airports and going through the dismal process of security checks and on and on and on," Prentice said. "You're paying people in the executive offices -- there's a lot of wages that are lost while they're waiting."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 7, 2024