Billionaires Kylie Jenner and Elon Musk.
Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by Gotham/GC Images and Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images
Starting Dec. 14, legendary Twitter user Jack Sweeney’s @CelebJets, @ElonJet, and @JxckSweeney accounts they were banned. Read our interview earlier this year with the college student responsible for monitoring celebrity jet usage and airing all their dirty fuel.
Jack Sweeney didn’t set out to become a climate activist or a celebrity whisperer. But after the University of Central Florida student created 30 bot accounts following various private jets of the rich and famous, from sports teams to celebrities a Elon Musk, Sweeney found himself in a funny situation. He ended up tweeting one-on-one with Musk himself, who he hoped to one day work for. Sweeney had been following Musk’s jet for over a year and a half on Twitter when the Tesla creator and part-time internet troll attempted to shutdown one of his accounts in January, offering Sweeney just $5,000 to take down the tracking program. Sweeney agreed, but only if Musk gave him a Tesla or an internship. Musk never replied, so he kept following us.
Sweeney isn’t the type to care what celebrities do. (He doesn’t even have a favorite celebrity other than Musk and Mark Cuban.) A quiet, straightforward guy, he’s all about numbers and data, and it was his genuine curiosity about tracking systems that led him to what he would become. his biggest project: @CelebJets. The account became a Twitter phenomenon as fans used it to keep tabs on their favorite celebrities; Swifties used the tracker to determine whether Taylor Swift would attend this year’s Met Gala, and others have used it to critique the Jenner-Kardashian clan. @CelebJets also tracks carbon and jet fuel costs, inadvertently highlighting celebrities like Swift, Kylie Jenner, and Drake for their frequent flights (the latter two especially on their short trips). Musk’s five-minute hike from LAX to Van Nuys Airport holds the record for shortest trip at 19 miles. In addition to Musk, other celebrities have started defending their flights (or flights they didn’t take), but Sweeney hasn’t backed down and keeps the data talking. Vulture tracked down the tracker himself to ask him about the inspiration behind @CelebJets, the power of public data, and which celebrity he would still go on a plane ride with.
What inspired you to create @CelebJets?
Well, I initially started with @ElonJet because I was interested in Elon, SpaceX and Tesla. Then I saw that there was so much interest. And I knew there were people interested in celebrities, but there was also the emissions aspect, so I thought it would be interesting to share all these other celebrities that people are interested in and also show what’s going on with them.
What specific data do you extract and how does the public access it?
I used ADS-B data from a company called ADS-B Exchange, which pretty much all planes are required to broadcast ADS-B to, on the air frequency like AM or FM radio. Airplanes transmit data on an open frequency that any business or person can receive that data and decode it. It will say what the plane’s identity is, its speed — all that information. The ADS-B Exchange has a network of receivers, and I get that data, and look up the planes of interest with their linear data files. They can be traced, basically where they are going and who owns them, through the identifiers linked to the aircraft registration.
How long after takeoff or landing is data posted on Twitter?
Virtually instantly. The last delay would be, like, a minute.
When did the account start to catch on?
Most of my other accounts before starting @CelebJets were quite large, so that was as soon as I announced it. She’s started gaining followers, but she’s gained a lot of traction in the last three months with Kylie Jenner, Taylor Swift and Drake stuff.
Speaking of celebs like Kylie Jenner and Drake, what do you have to say about celebs who defend their shorter flights by saying they’re just moving jets from place to place?
They are probably sincere. But the thing is, if it’s still their plane and it’s only being flown to move it, it’s still their responsibility. It is still their imprint.
Are you worried about A-listers calling you, similar to how Elon did?
Not really, because it’s all legal and public data. They just don’t want to be traced. I’m surprised [none of the] celebrities have really said something about [@CelebJets].
I know you said celebrities didn’t reach out to the real account, but has anyone reached out to you about your new carbon offsetting companies that have recently launched?
No, not yet. There hasn’t been much attention on that right now.
What was the most surprising thing you learned as the account grew in popularity?
It’s crazy how quickly this stuff will spread on social media, even just a small amount of information. People start making memes and jokes, and it spreads like wildfire.
I read in yours Fortune interview that climate justice was not your main focus when creating the account. If your original intention wasn’t to be a climate activist, then what did you set out to accomplish with the account and do you think it was successful?
Originally, it was just an idea to share what people cared about: celebrities. I was like, I share it too. I’d say I did what I wanted and more.
Have you ever thought about doing something similar with celebrity yachts?
Yeah, it’s just, like, my program is written for airplanes, and there’s data out there for yachts. I haven’t really messed with it yet.
Since the account gained popularity, have you noticed a change in the flight patterns of celebrities?
I think so. Kim Kardashian or Kylie Jenner’s plane normally took off from Camarillo to Van Nuys and then continued on its journey. But a couple of days ago, I saw that the plane left right from Camarillo to its final destination.
Have you flown on a private jet before?
No, not yet.
Is there a celebrity jet you would hop on if they offered you a ride?
Definitely Elon. Probably Mark Cuban too. I don’t know any other celebrities.
Even after your interactions with Elon, would you still want to get on a plane with him?
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.