Private jets were once a status symbol for either the wealthy, or, as Hollywood suggested in the ’80s, the domain of narco-traffickers flying to and from South America.
In the past couple decades, that notion was revisited, and ” more commonly at least ” private jets were used as a tool of business, and became more accessible to the less affluent.
A small uptick in the domestic use of private jets following Sept. 11 has now evened out as the U.S. economy has entered a resounding lull. Once again, it seems private jets may be reserved for the rich. Now passengers who use private jets tend to do so to either dazzle business clients with an array of amenities, or to simply travel from one city to the next without interruption.
But looking at demand alone, private jets are as popular as ever.
“Last year, we sold a record number of business jets,” said Katie Pribyl, spokeswoman for the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, which produces private jets. “Last year eclipsed the previous record set in 2006, and this year is going very well. In the first quarter of this year, sales of business jets are up 40 percent compared to last year.”
What’s changed is where the planes are flying.
“The shift started about two years ago,” Pribyl said. “For the first year ever, we now have more planes being sold overseas than in North America.”
Local airports have noticed the shift.
“We’ve seen traffic down about four percent for general aviation this year, fuel sales are down seven percent, and hangar sales are down 13 percent,” said Paul Gordon, president of the Vail Valley jet center. “Business people are definitely cutting back on their travel like everyone else, and it’s not fun. We haven’t seen anything like this since the early 1990s.”
Nationally, general aviation sales and traffic are down 10 to 20 percent “across the board,” Gordon said, adding that the Pacific market was “booming,” with China and India poised to take a bigger slice of the market share.
Pribyl added sales to Russia have been “big, and China started building the runways and facilities to support the industry,” she said. “Over the last year or two, Europe has been a strong market for us as well.”
The problem is that very few of the planes sold internationally ever touch down in Colorado. Gordon estimated the Vail Valley Jet Center has about 300 customs flights each year.
Part of the reason for a decline in private jet sales in the U.S. may be high gas prices.
“A fuel tank can hold anywhere from 100 gallons to 4,000 or 5,000 gallons on some of the larger aircraft,” said Gordon. “Jet fuel is about seven bucks a gallon right now, so that gets expensive pretty quickly.”
The July 15 issue of Business Week quoted a spokesman from the charter company Ocean Sky Aviation in London as saying high fuel costs “cut both ways,” because many of the firm’s clients now come from energy-based economies in Russia and the Middle East, adding, “High energy prices are good for us. I thank God for them every day.”
While high fuel prices may be the source of the shift to international sales, some companies are ready to take advantage of the situation with a sales pitch that grows more attractive by the month: free fuel.
“Our prices are for aircraft use only ” our clients don’t pay for fuel ” and that’s quickly becoming one of our main selling points,” said Anthony Tivnan, executive vice president of Jets.com, a company that charters private jets. He said many other companies still charge by the hour, “And that can be pretty hefty for a 14- or 16-hour trip.”
But for some people, money just isn’t an issue.
In that case, a private jet can offer a downright pleasant travel experience, compared to the stand-and-wait hassle of flying commercially alongside the working stiffs.
“We offered one client a Gulf Stream 4, which is a top-of-the-line aircraft, to go from L.A. to Miami,” Tivnan said. “It was $64,000, but we also had a G5 for $105,000. They took the G5 because they were with people they wanted to impress.
“In the U.S., something like that is overkill, but some people just want it,” he said.
In addition to a little extra legroom, passengers on private luxury jets can expect in-flight spa treatment, and flight attendants who may double as masseuses. Standard catering usually comes to $75 per person, but the costs can go much higher.
“On that G5 flight from L.A. to Miami, the catering bill for six people came to $10,000,” Tivnan said. “These are the type of people who will walk into a restaurant, order one of everything on the menu for the table, pick out what they want, and throw the rest away.”
But even those who stick a little closer to the $75 plate can expect a pretty decent meal. “The preparation on these meals is something you’d see in a four- or five-star restaurant,” Tivnan said. “But the process of preparing it is more intricate because once you fly above a certain altitude, your taste buds change, so there are a number of catering agencies that work specifically for private aviation.”
Maybe that’s why so many meals offered on commercial flights wind up tasting utterly pedestrian ” the delicate flavor profiles don’t translate that well at 30,000 feet.
Once again, the privilege of flying private belongs to the wealthy … or the lucky.
Jim Carlton, who works at Timberline Barber Shop in Vail, considers himself one of the latter. Last weekend, he hopped on a flight chartered by George Gillett, former owner of Vail Ski Resort, to catch a NASCAR race at Poconos.
“No jet lag is pretty nice,” said Carlton, smiling between clips of his scissors. “We went from Montreal to Marseilles, and it took us just over six hours.”
Traveling at more than 700 miles per hour was a pretty unique experience, said Carlton, who ventured up to the cockpit for a better view. “We were flying at 45,000 feet and from there you could see the curvature of the earth,” he said. “It was pretty amazing.”
Ali Hasan, Republican candidate for House District 56 in Colorado, shadowed his father on business trips while growing up. He saw private jets geared more toward efficiency than luxury.
“It was just much less hassle, and much less time spent traveling,” he said. “This way, my father was able to have a bubble where he could just remain focused on his work.”
“Some people use private jets solely for security,” Hasan said. In the year following Sept.11, he was detained in Los Angeles for more than an hour, and was also asked to deplane for questioning by the FBI because he shares his name with a person on the terrorist list.
Hasan added airport security has streamlined, and he felt the main reason people continue to use private jets is efficiency.
“People don’t fly on private jets for the amenities or to impress clients ” that’s what resorts are for,” he said. “They aren’t really considered as luxurious as they once were, and flying first class on a lot of airlines is often just as nice. Private jets are made for efficiency, and as CEO, my father was very focused, and it allowed him to travel from city to city without interruption.”
Hasan’s mother, Seeme, also felt that the luxury factor of most private jets was overstated. She wrote via e-mail most small private jets “either have no bathroom or a very small one,” and “It is not easy to get into the bathroom and out.”
But in addition to stripped-down amenities on many private jets, other considerations need to be made that many commercial passengers take for granted. In talking about the Eagle County airport, Seeme Hasan wrote the high mountains on either side meant, “You can only land when the pilot can see visually and fly in between (the mountains) to make the landing in a narrow space. So no landings or takeoffs after dark and even semi-dark.”
The Aspen airport usually closes at 5 p.m., she wrote, so if a private flight is late, the pilot has “No choice but to land in Eagle or Grand Junction and then drive in to Aspen.” She added that Donald Trump often visits Aspen, but parks his jet in Eagle because Aspen tends to run out of parking spaces.
So while catered culinary delights, in-flight massages and spa treatments may sound enticing, that lifestyle of the rich and famous is grounded by the reality that most small private jets offer greater efficiency than luxury.
Even top-of-the-line private jets are subject to the whims of mountain weather.
The next time you’re stuck in an endless check-in line or security checkpoint at the airport, you can drop the private jet envy. Yeah, chances are they’ll have a pretty quick and comfortable flight, but that fickle mountain weather could wind up making for an even longer day. Or as one Brooklyn poet put it, “Mo’ money, mo’ problems.”
Nathan Rodriguez may be reached for comment at email@example.com.
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