Wings of desire

Britain's new millionaires share a dream - to own a private jet. But this is one mile-high club that's not so easy to get into.
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The current dilemma facing Mr Blair and the Queen over which make and model of plane to order is less unusual than you may think. They are not the only ones exchanging notes on the economic, moral and practical advantages of their favourite plane. (An American-style Airbus would be Mr Blair's choice, while the image-conscious Queen favours a smaller executive jet such as a Falcon or a Gulfstream.)

For Britain's self-made millionaires, too, such top-of-the-range shopping is far more complicated these days. Private jets were once the property of large organisations, heads of state, exceptional entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates, and a handful of Hollywood stars including Jack Nicholson and John Travolta (Arnold Schwarzenegger waived his $20m fee for starring in Total Recall in return for a Learjet. It was thought to be a useful tool for his political ambitions at the time).

Now private jets are transporting hundreds of new-rich Brits. David Hood of Pace Micro; the Britpop band Blur; Bernie Ecclestone, the maestro of Formula One; David Whelan, of JJB Sports - all these people are acquiring the once-exclusive jet. (Of course, everything is relative. Despite a huge increase in sales in the last five years, there are still only some 270 jets in the UK. Compare that to the 5,000 Ferraris that grace our shores, and their exclusivity is apparent.)

In the last two years, Gulfstream Aerospace Corporation has had to increase its production by more than 100 per cent. "In the first six months of 1998 alone, we have delivered 43 aircraft already, compared with 35 at the same time last year," says Tricia Bergeron, Gulfstream's vice-president of corporate affairs. In basic economic terms, current demand far outweighs supply. There just are not enough aircraft being built for those who want them.

The Gulfstream owners' list reads like a Who's Who of the late 20th century. Clients include Henry Keswick, Lord Rothschild, the Sultan of Brunei and Joe Lewis - and the recently launched GV is selling well despite its pounds 24m price tag. Falcon Jets, owned by the French aerospace company Dassault, is the only remaining European manufacturer of private jets. It supplies most of the EC governments -among them France, Italy, Germany and Belgium - with the 900 model, a similar aircraft to the Gulfstream IV.

For newer, less established, less wealthy buyers, it is a case of getting hold of whatever jet may be available. "This is a problem," confirms Mike O'Kane, president of Wings Associates, a jet sales company in the United States. "The current economic boom - in the US and the UK especially - is creating a large pool of individuals with a high disposable income, and they want something to spend their bonuses on." Don't you feel for them? They are very rich, and willing to part with their money, but can't get their hands on this new trophy. The situation is pushing many potential buyers on to the second-hand market.

You can now buy a second-hand jet for as little as pounds 500,000. It may sound like a lot of money, but when you consider that the McLaren F1 car is more expensive than a Cessna Citation, it is easier to understand why more people are investing in jets. Jets may be expensive but they are practical, they save time and they are, relatively speaking of course, an affordable commodity for many people. You can buy a jet, use it for 70 hours a year yourself and charter it for the remaining 400 hours. This way, the aircraft's costs can be recouped. If you are slightly less ambitious, you can part-own a jet with friends or colleagues. Companies such as Netjets in Switzerland offer a cheaper way in to the dream world of planes. You can buy a jet's nose or tail in the same way as you may invest in a racehorse's leg.

However, a recent explosion in the number of second-hand buyers has only added to the difficulties for would-be purchasers. Once again they outnumber the sellers. "Gulfstream IVs, a model which is 10 years old, are selling for more money than they were bought new. Buyers believe that if they are prepared to part with pounds 20m, they should be able to walk out of the store with the goods," points out a private jet salesman. As for smaller, less expensive second-hand aircraft, they are extremely rare.

It is difficult to assess whether large manufacturers such as Gulfstream, Lear and Falcon have genuinely been caught out by the sudden boom, or whether they are carefully controlling the flow of sales. While supply remains lower than demand - providing that it does not totally dry up - interest in jets will remain high. Since the beginning of time, many people have wanted to be a part of a small, exclusive club.

For some, the dream may be owning a football club or a Ming vase. For others, having their own jet represents the ultimate achievement. Such a prize possession is a way for individuals to grade their success. And while that remains the case, private jet sales are cleared for take-off.

Join The Jet Set

THERE ARE currently some 270 private jets in the UK. If you would like to join that exclusive band, the information here may be useful. A plane will incur high running costs - pounds 500,000 will buy a plane, not fly it. Set aside another pounds 500,000 for yearly costs. Jet ownership is cheaper, not cheap.

Main manufacturers:

Gulfstream 0171-439 0888

Falcon 0181-897 6021

Cost (new and second-hand):

Gulfstream V, pounds 25m

Falcon 900 Ex, pounds 23m

Bombardier Global Express, pounds 25m

Cost of smaller planes:

Cessna Citation, pounds 2.5 million new, pounds 500,000 second-hand

Hawker, pounds 5.5 million new, pounds 3.75 million second-hand

Joint ownership:

Netjets 00 411 815 5402

Famous owners:

The Royal family

Sultan of Brunei

Tom Cruise

Bernie Ecclestone

Mohamed al Fayed