Royals spent more than £13m of public money on private flights and helicopter journeys

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 (Getty/PA/The Independent)
(Getty/PA/The Independent)

The Royal Family spent more than £13m of public money on private chartered flights and helicopter journeys just under a decade before leading calls at Cop26 to combat the climate crisis, it can be revealed.

The Queen, Prince Charles and Prince William each issued stark messages to world leaders at the Glasgow summit about the threat posed to the planet by climate change – with the monarch urging them to act for “our children and our children’s children”.

But an investigation by The Independent has found that the Royals have taken millions of pounds’ worth of taxpayer-funded journeys using chartered flights and helicopters in the last eight years, prompting scrutiny from green campaigners, with one pointing out that people “believe in action much more strongly than words”.

It comes after criticism of world leaders and delegates who opted to travel to Cop26 in November by private jet – which are up to 14 times more polluting per passenger than commercial flights, according to a recent report. Boris Johnson and Prince Charles were among those who used private jets at the summit.

The Royal Family’s official travel is funded via the taxpayer through the Sovereign Grant. A comprehensive analysis by The Independent of travel data published in Sovereign Grant annual accounts from 2013/14 to 2020/21 reveals that at least £13.5m has been spent on travel using chartered flights and helicopters. The journeys include:

  • The Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall taking chartered flights on an FCO visit to Colombia and Mexico in October and November 2014 costing £446,159. The pair flew from RAF Brize Norton to Bogota, then Cartagena, Mexico City, Campeche, back to Mexico City, then Monterrey before returning to the UK;

  • Some £210,345 being spent on chartered flights to take Prince Charles to Muscat in January 2020 to pay his condolences to His Majesty Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, following the death of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said. He flew from Aberdeen to Muscat, before heading back to Marham in Norfolk, near Sandringham;

  • The Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall travelling for an official FCO visit to the India and Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka in November 2013 using chartered flights, costing £350,413. They jetted from Brize Norton to New Delhi, before going Dehradun then back to New Delhi, then heading to Mumbai, Cochin, Colombo, Doha and then returning to the UK;

  • More than £200,000 spent on chartered flights to take Prince Charles on an official FCO visit to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain in February 2014. A total of £228,426 went on the flights from Brize Norton to Riyadh, Doha, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and back to Brize Norton;

  • The Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall taking chartered flights costing £239,710 on an official FCO four-day visit to the United States in March 2015. They flew from Brize Norton to Andrews AFB, Louisville and back to Brize Norton.

Dr Doug Parr, Chief Scientist for Greenpeace UK, said: “For each mile you travel, taking a flight is many times more polluting than other means of transport, and a private jet is many times more polluting than a scheduled flight. The real changes we need to fix the aviation problem are structural – making teleconferencing and train travel cheaper and easier, and pricing in the cost to the climate and the environment. However, anyone who wants to be seen as an environmental role model should have a close look at their own private jet use. When you take a private jet to give a speech about climate change, there’s a high risk it won’t be the speech’s content that people talk about.”

Alethea Warrington, campaigner for climate charity Possible, added: “The royal family’s stance on environmental issues has the potential to have a positive impact on the climate crisis. However, calls by members of the super-wealthy elite for more urgent action on the climate crisis are undermined when their own choices do not reflect their rhetoric. Private jets can be anywhere between five and 14 times more polluting than commercial planes (per passenger) and emit 50 times the pollution of trains; helicopters also produce much higher emissions per passenger than trains or electric cars.

“People believe in action much more strongly than words and if high-profile public figures like the royal family were to choose sustainable travel, that would set a positive example in showing the importance of climate action to everyone.”

Helena Bennett, senior policy adviser at Green Alliance, said: “In the UK and across Europe we are lucky to have an extensive rail network, as the prime minister showed when he opted to travel by train to the COP26 climate summit on his second visit. Flying in a private jet is one of the most unsustainable things a person can do and, while members of the Royal Family have spoken out on climate change, they should be setting an example by flying less and avoiding private jets altogether.”

The £13.5m figure covers nearly 2,000 journeys but does not include some undertaken by chartered flights or helicopter in the last four financial years – meaning it will be even higher. The Independent’s analysis has only included the cost of chartered flights or helicopter journeys where it is exclusively stated. From 2017/8 the cost of some journeys incorporate separate travel mode costs, such as scheduled flights for staff, but does not provide a breakdown.

There are examples of Royals using helicopters to fly between their own residences across the UK. The latest Sovereign Grant Reserve annual report states: “The Sovereign Grant meets the cost of official journeys undertaken by or in support of The Queen and other members of the Royal Family. Travel by The Queen, The Late Duke of Edinburgh, The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall and The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge between residences is categorised as official.”

Journeys have also been undertaken by Royals using scheduled flights or the Royal train, raising the question of why they are not used more frequently as a friendlier option to the environment. In addition to the £13.5m, funds have also been spent on RAF Voyager and BAe146 journeys.

The Queen, who had been due to attend the COP26 climate summit but pulled out after receiving medical advice to rest, urged world leaders in a video message to create a “safer, stabler future” for the planet. Urging them to act “for our children and our children’s children”, she also highlighted a warning about world pollution her late husband Prince Philip issued in a speech more than half a century ago.

Meanwhile, both Prince Charles and Prince William visited the summit with the second-in-line to the throne highlighting that climate change presents a greater existential threat than the Covid-19 pandemic “to the extent that we have to put ourselves on what might be called a war-like footing”.

In his summit speech, the Duke of Cambridge said “the most important question we face” is “how to repair our planet”. It followed his critical comments of space travel, telling a BBC podcast “we need some of the world’s greatest brains and minds fixed on trying to repair this planet, not trying to find the next place to go and live”. He said he had “absolutely no interest” in going as high as space and pointed to the “fundamental question” of the carbon cost of space flights.

Matt Finch, UK Policy manager at the Transport and Environment campaign group, added: “Flying by private jet is the most carbon-intensive form of transport. A four hour private flight emits about the same amount of greenhouse gases as the average person in the UK does in an entire year, when measured on a consumption-based basis. All world leaders should be setting an example and avoiding using private flights when there are commercial flights available.”

Cait Hewitt, policy director at the Aviation Environment Federation, added: “Clearly the Royal family will have security issues to take into account when planning their travel. But the choices made by high profile people like the Royals can have a ripple effect on public attitudes, with flying more likely to be seen as desirable and high status.”

A Buckingham Palace spokesman said: “The vast majority of all the trips highlighted are undertaken at the request of government and therefore travel is arranged based on the best balance of security, efficiency and minimising disruption to the public. The Royal Family are committed to supporting the need to tackle climate change just as they are on attending overseas visits and events representing the United Kingdom which is why The Prince of Wales has personally campaigned for a shift towards sustainable aviation fuel and would only undertake travel this autumn when it was agreed that sustainable fuel would be used by the MoD.”

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