David Nicholson is a freelance journalist based in the UK.
For many, private jets are seen as the epitome of wealth and luxury – the ultimate status symbol. They are speedy, flexible, convenient and, with so many varieties of design and price, everyone can can experience their dream jet. David Nicholson finds out more …
Celebrities the world over have long been using private jets as their preferred method of transport, but it appears that they are not alone. Private jet travel has been rising by an estimated 10% a year since the millennium, with the number of charter jet passengers, which includes private jet travel, in the UK alone leaping from 3.5 million in 1996 to 34 million last year, against a rise of 114 million to 202 million for scheduled air passenger numbers.
While the price of buying or chartering a typical private plane with between eight and 10 seats has remained pretty stable in the past decade, some new aircraft have come onto the market at far more affordable prices.
The price of luxury
A popular mid-range option is the Citation XL, from aircraft manufacturers Cessna, with six to eight seats, selling for around $12 million. The Eclipse 500, from Eclipse Aviation, retails for around $1.5 million, putting it into the price bracket for many families who might baulk at the tag on a top-of-the-range Gulfstream, which can be anything from $45 million upwards.
Besides these, the main private jets are the family-owned Dassault Falcons, a fleet of six Falcon models ranging in size from six to eight passengers and averaging approximately $40 million; the Lockheed JetStar, the first dedicated business jet which was produced from the early 1960s; and the wide family of jets – including the seven-seater King Air B200, the best-selling business jet of all time – from Hawker Beechcraft, a firm that has just celebrated its 75th birthday.
There are an estimated 11,000 private jets in the worldwide fleet, the majority of them in the US, but with rising numbers in Europe and Asia. The main differences between the models are number of seats – most have about seven, but the Gulfstream IV-SP has 13 and some Boeing planes have as many as 50 – and the range they can cover. The Cessna Citation can only travel 1,500 miles, whereas the Gulfstream V-SP can do more than 7,000. Most average around 3,000 miles.
Naturally, you can customise your jet by asking for leather seats, remote control TV and all manner of food and drink-related extras, but the limitation of space means that most private jet travellers keep decorations to a minimum. You also have to go on a two-year waiting list for most brand new jets, so many buyers go through brokers for second-hand planes.
Charter prices can be as little as $2,000 for an hour's flying time, so if a plane is shared by four people, the overall cost can be comparable to business class tickets on regular airlines. Plus, you can avoid the hassle and time spent at the ever lengthening check-in and security queues. For many private jet users, this alone justifies the additional price.
"I've often arrived at my destination in less time than it takes to clear security at Gatwick and Heathrow," says finance manager Vince Nicholls. "I live 10 minutes from Biggin Hill and can park a very short walk away from where the aircraft is waiting. I just flash my passport and off we go."
Besides the evident time savings, there is much increased flexibility: you can choose to fly earlier or later than planned and even change your destination, in response to changing weather for example. There are more than 1,000 small airports in Europe giving you almost limitless choice of location.
A further option, which has grown rapidly in popularity, is "fractional" ownership, which is essentially a time-share programme for private jets. You pay for a set number of hours or days and can then buy more time if necessary. Fractional ownership companies guarantee you a plane on demand, either from their pool of jets or by chartering one for you. It's not cheap – you might expect to pay $200,000 for a 1/16th share of a plane, plus a monthly management fee of around $12,000, plus fuel costs – but unless you are sure that you'll need to use a jet very frequently, this could be your best option.
For those with the largest budgets, private aviation offers the chance to create a truly distinct travelling experience. Roman Abramovich is said to own a Boeing 747, which he converted into a spacious living and sleeping space for himself and his family. Another (anonymous) buyer has put in an order for an Airbus A-380, the largest commercial plane in the world, costing around $300 million. Middle Eastern royalty are famously keen on customising their aircraft – one royal installed cameras on the outside of his jet, linked to a giant screen inside, so he could watch the clouds go by.
This trend fits in with the drive to create more luxurious conditions for business class travellers, with many airlines introducing flat beds, bar areas and other conveniences for those paying top prices. Besides improving larger aircrafts, the big global carriers are becoming acutely aware of the competition they face from private aircraft, either sold to individuals or through people chartering them. Analyst Scott Gillespie at Travel Analytics in the US believes that the major airlines will face increasing competition from smaller aircraft.
"The airlines have to learn to live with microjets and air taxis," he says. "They are the emerging competition. Traditional airlines are burdened by the size of their aircraft, which need a certain length of runway, whereas the lighter planes can use shorter runways and can use municipal airports, close to city centres. This appeals to the high-end business traveller and wealthy families." In response, Gillespie suggests, airlines could begin investing in such aircraft, or else invite companies operating light jets to join their alliances.
With rising fuel costs and environmental taxes eating into their profit margins, the main international carriers are under pressure to save costs and maximise revenue. Yet the effects of this pressure are becoming painfully clear. If you have the money to spare for private air travel, why would you put yourself and your family through the ordeal of lengthy and frustrating airport queues, an unreliable service, the possibility of being ripped off, and the surprisingly high chance of losing your belongings by the time you reach your destination? The logic of private air travel begins to seem inescapable.
For environmental campaigners, the logic is all in the other direction. They argue that people should not fly at all if possible, and should certainly not use private jets if a commercial alternative is available. The author of eco-movie An Inconvenient Truth, former US vice president Al Gore, admits that he is uncomfortable with all the air travel he needs to take in order to publicise his film. Buying a large private jet, says one environmentalist, is like buying a coal-fired power station just to charge up your mobile phone.
For the time being, this does not seem to be deterring those celebrities and high net worth individuals who like to travel in style. When it comes to flying in the lap of luxury, it would appear that private jets are here for the long-haul.