When Kylie Jenner's very brief flight on a private jet went viral last week, people were outraged — largely about the environmental impact of the trip.
Jack Sweeney was unfazed. The 19-year-old whose Twitter account @CelebJets publicized Jenner's trip has made a name for himself since January by publicly tracking the private jets of billionaires and celebrities. He says the reaction to Jenner's 17-minute flight was only surprising to him because he's seen Elon Musk take even shorter flights on his private jet, without nearly as much uproar.
Sweeney says Musk has flown multiple times from Los Angeles International Airport to Hawthorne Airport, which are about six miles — a 10-minute drive — apart. That's much shorter than Jenner's roughly 40-mile flight from Camarillo, California, to Van Nuys, California.
"I'm not really [surprised] people react," Sweeney tells CNBC Make It. "There are so many reasons they have to be surprised. The fact that [flights] are even trackable, that it's a celebrity and it's a quick flight."
Musk did not immediately respond to CNBC Make Its request for comment.
Sweeney, a University of Central Florida sophomore who also writes software for UberJets, controls 30 Twitter accounts that track the private jets of billionaires, celebrities and Russian oligarchs. His most popular handle, @ElonJet, tracks Musk's movements — and went viral in January after Sweeney declined Musk's offer to take the account down for $5,000. That handle now has more than 478,000 followers.
The accounts, which started popping up in June 2020, automatically publish flight coordinates from code that Sweeney wrote to pull data from public websites like ADS-B Exchange, which post the location, altitude and speed transmitted by every federally regulated aircraft.
Notably, Sweeney says, the data can sometimes be deceiving. Especially short flights can often be explained by a simple rationale: The pilot is dropping off its passenger at one airport, and then parking the plane at another airport nearby.
"I believe [Jenner's short flight] was for parking the aircraft in Camarillo, while they get off at Van Nuys," Sweeney tweeted last week. "Same with Kim [Kardashian]. It's probably cheaper to park the aircraft in Camarillo."
Music star Drake, whose whereabouts are also tracked on @CelebJets, supports Sweeney's theory. In a Tuesday comment on an Instagram post about Drake's own extra-short flights, the rapper wrote: "This is just them moving planes to whatever airport they are being stored at for anyone who was interested in the logistics… nobody takes that flight."
Sweeney's flight-tracking endeavors have recently been accused of violating celebrities' privacy. But because his code pulls from public data, Sweeney remains unsympathetic. He says anyone with motivation can access the information, and celebrities themselves aren't usually shy about posting photos of their jets on social media.
"People have the private planes, they post all of these pictures on them," Sweeney says. "It's not a secret."
For now, Sweeney says his side hustle remains fairly passive – and not very lucrative. He makes a couple of hundred dollars every month from ad revenue and donations to his website. He says he plans to eventually make the project more profitable, listing off ideas like expanding his website into an all-in-one celebrity flight tracker or finding a way to offer carbon offsets for some of the flights he tracks.
Just don't expect any major updates in the coming months: Sweeney says he's spending the summer traveling and working, and won't expand his code — primarily by adding more jets to his project — until he returns to campus this fall.
"The funny thing is, when I'm back at school, I feel like I get more done," Sweeney says. "There are less distractions."