Plane wrong

Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle United used private jets to fly to a meaningless exhibition match on the other side of the world, despite both clubs signing the UN Sport for Climate Action in 2021. 

By Jack Kerr, Steve Menary, Philippe Auclair, Andy Brown, Samindra Kunti and Lars Johnsen

For some clubs, the final whistle of the season is the precursor to a night of hijinks, a chance to celebrate the season that was with those who made it possible: team mates, support staff, sponsors and fans. For Tottenham Hotspur, who finished its season at Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane stadium, the final whistle signalled it was time for the circus to move on.

Barely five hours after wrapping up fifth spot, the team were on the tarmac at the East Midlands airport, preparing for a long-haul flight to Australia. Their destination was a midweek exhibition match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). And despite a commercial flight departing and arriving at virtually the same time, they would take a privately chartered Boeing 767 to get there. 

An hour later, 160 kilometres south at London Stansted, Newcastle United would board an Airbus A340 headed for the same destination.

Both clubs are signatories to the UN Sports for Climate Action Framework 2021, and have used that as leverage to promote their clubs as organisations that are tackling the climate emergency. Tottenham has been named the Premier League’s greenest club on multiple occasions and Newcastle includes “Promoting Sustainable Transportation” as one of its environmental targets.

Yet Europe’s Transport & Energy group says private jets create more carbon emissions in a few hours than the average European would in a year. Private planes, it says, are creating a “disproportionate impact”, producing 5 to 14 times more emissions per passenger than commercial planes, which are themselves highly problematic. 

For all the joy that last week’s match brought to 75,000 supporters at the MCG, experts say the club’s flights illustrate the excessive emissions that major international sports are creating, while also greenwashing their brands.

“Both Newcastle and Spurs flying on separate private jets to play a friendly in Melbourne is absurd given the climate impacts we are seeing unfold around the world,” says Freddie Daley, an academic at the University of Sussex that runs the Cool Down Sport for Climate Action Network. 

“Spurs are a signatory of the United Nations’ Sport for Climate Action Framework. Upon signing, the club agreed to a series of principles including to reduce their overall climate impact and promote sustainable and responsible consumption. The friendly in Melbourne flouted both.”  

For Spurs, it was also the second tour to Australia in 10 months, following an exhibition match against West Ham in Perth last July.

Unravelling Tottenham’s travels
Tottenham played its last game of the season, against Sheffield United, at 14:00 on Sunday. 

A post on the club’s Instagram account shows team members exiting a minivan on the tarmac of a small airport and boarding a plane late in the day. No other passengers are visible, one player is carrying a portable bluetooth speaker and “Spurs in Australia” headrest covers are visible behind Dejan Kulusevski in another video, all indicating the team was on a specially chartered flight.

As Pierre-Emile Højbjerg walks past the camera, different frames reveal different parts of the plane’s callsign which has been painted under its wing.

Put together, it reads as ZS-NEX. Plane registration data shows it is operated by the Aeronexus Corporation, a private jet specialist. This particular Boeing 767 has previously been leased to rock legends like the Rolling Stones and Guns N Roses

Tottenham’s flight departed from East Midlands airport around 21:30 local time, data from crowd-sourced flight-tracking service ADS-B Exchange shows. It arrived in Melbourne around 23 hours later (with a stop for refuelling  in Sri Lanka).

The decision to take this private flight was despite Emirates and Qantas offering a near identical commercial service. 

Flight aggregator Kayak showed the code-shared flight leaving from Manchester at 21:15 on that Sunday evening, and landing in Melbourne in the same hour as the charter flight.

Manchester Airport is approximately the same distance from Bramall Lane Stadium as East Midlands is. 

The flights were so close together that, at one point, they were both over the western neck of the Black Sea, with one crossing the northern coast as the other prepared to cross the south. One plane was almost literally in the other’s wake.

All up, Spurs saved themselves about an hour of travel time to get to a meaningless match on the other side of the world, burning through significantly more aviation fuel in the process.  

Spurs website includes pages such as “Passionate About Our Planet”,  where it says the club is “dedicated to minimising the environmental impacts of its activities across all Club operations”. It also says that “To Care Is To Do”.

“How can they meaningfully engage their fans on climate?”

Tottenham’s use of a private jet appears to be at odds with the club’s credentials as the Premier League’s greenest club, an accolade it won for the fourth consecutive year in May 2023

“As a signatory of the UN Sports for Climate Action Framework, the Club has a policy in place to ensure all its playing teams – comprising of the Men’s First Team, Women’s First Team and Academy age groups – travel to and from matches as sustainably as possible”, wrote a Totthenham spokesperson in response to questions about the club’s sustainability policies.

“This includes minimising air travel where possible, with team officials and delegates travelling on the team plane where space permits. During the season, the team will travel by coach for all distances under 2.5 hours, whereby player physical optimisation and performance is not compromised as a result.”

The club said its official travel partner, the Portman Group’s Destination Sport Travel, “is also working with the Club to offset emissions where possible via the purchase of carbon credits verified by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change”.

But the Cool Down Sport for Climate Action Network’s Freddie Daley slammed the clubs’ actions as completely inappropriate. 

“In the past few weeks we have seen football brought to a standstill due to devastating floods in Brazil and lethal heat waves across South Asia. Emissions-intensive friendlies like this one are all but ensuring that football sees more disruption, not less. Not only does such a trip add a substantial amount of emissions to the atmosphere, it also sends the wrong message to football fans about the necessity of cutting emissions wherever and whenever possible. How can Spurs or Newcastle meaningfully engage their fans on climate after flying over 16,000 kilometres to play a friendly? They can’t. It undermines their leadership on matters of sustainability and climate action.”

The UN Sport for Climate Action Framework did not respond to questions about what action it would take if one of its signatories was found to be using a massively polluting form of travel, such as a private jet, when greener methods of travel were available.

Newcastle fly solo
A photo of the sun rising behind the Melbourne airport terminal, taken through a window plane and posted on Newcastle’s Instagram page, reveals that it departed by private carrier from London Stansted shortly after Spurs took off.

Using Google Maps, the two prominent buildings in the photo can be identified as a multi-storey car park (green) and an Ibis hotel (pink). An office of the Australian federal police is to their right (purple). 

Together with the markings on the tarmac and the position of the sun, it can be calculated that Newcastle’s plane was at Melbourne Airport’s bay G54 at around 07:20 local time.

The historic flight log on ADS-B Exchange shows a plane with the callsign D-AUSC taxing past bay G54 at the moment the sun would have been rising behind the car park.

The plane is operated by German start-up Universal Key Carrier (USC), and was the only private carrier in the area in that period. 

It had also departed London Stansted 24 hours earlier – or just hours after Newcastle had paid a visit to Brentford’s Community Stadium for those teams’ last match of the Premier League season. 

(Despite the club being owned by Saudi interests, the plane was refuelled in the United Arab Emirates next door.)  

Arsenal’s women’s team go commercial
The MCG kicked off a Global Football Festival in Melbourne, which also featured Arsenal’s women’s team. 

The social media feed of star player Steph Catley shows the players on an Emirates flight, which has the appearance of a regular flight – including the presence of elderly passengers and cabin crew. 

The team is also shown leaving customs through Melbourne Airport’s public exit. Customers who fly on private charters typically get to exit through a high-fliers section or VIP area.

The club confirmed that, unlike the Premier League’s men who were in town for the same festival of football, the women’s team flew on a commercial jet.

It was not stated if this was for environmental reasons, or if its men’s team travels the same way. 

* Tonnes of CO2 equivalent

 This article was developed with the support of Journalismfund Europe.

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