If you've ever flown on a private jet, you'll know that it is a very handy way to travel. First, instead of fighting through the traffic with thousands of others to get to a congested Heathrow, Gatwick or Stansted, you drive on empty roads to smaller airports such as Farnborough. Once you get there, parking is usually easy. Then, instead of facing queues at the check-in desk, you are whisked through the departure formalities in minutes.
If anything, the advantages of this sort of travel have grown in the last few years: increased security has produced delays at big airports, while the loss of Concorde on transatlantic routes has caused movers and shakers to look for other ways of saving time. The private jets capable of handling such a long journey are now available: Bombardier's Global Express, for example, has a range of 6,000 nautical miles. The definition of what constitutes a private or business jet is also being stretched all the time; at the top end in terms of size is the Boeing Business Jet, a converted Boeing 737 airliner, and the rest of the market breaks down into a bewildering variety of sub-divisions according to range, size and other factors.
But the up-front costs of acquiring a private jet are high. Large companies, of course, have the cash to buy private jets, but may shy away from owning them. While fancy jets can speak volumes about a company's power and success, they can also become a target for activist shareholders or other campaigners looking for evidence of extravagance by company bosses. And those bosses may play the game themselves: an incoming CEO who wants to show that he is going to run a tighter ship than his predecessor can probably score a few points by getting rid of some jets.
And when a company goes through a lean patch, the axeing of jets can raise some cash and also play a role in demonstrating that the people at the top are sharing in the belt-tightening. Earlier this year, just to take one example, the US company Krispy Kreme Doughnuts hit some turbulence and had to reduce its head count. Perhaps inevitably, the company jet had to go, too.
The billionaire investor Warren Buffett famously confronted the critics of corporate jets head-on with his customary humour by calling his The Indefensible; now his Berkshire Hathaway group includes NetJets, which pioneered the so-called fractional ownership of jets. This gives companies far more flexibility than the outright acquisition of aircraft; in fact, it is possible to buy a 16th share in a jet (50 hours' flying time per year). For the Hawker 400XP, such a share could cost as little as $400,000 (£230,000), although there are additional management and operating costs. NetJets customers can make arrangements to upgrade or even downgrade to other aircraft types on the company's fleet. NetJets also operates a separate pre-paid lease scheme, the Marquis Jet Card, providing 25 hours flying a year.
Beyond such arrangements, which are aimed at regular users of business jets, individuals and companies looking to hire a jet for a one-off journey can turn to a range of specialists. The case for these services is that, depending on route, distance and the number of passengers travelling, private planes can often rival scheduled flights for value for money, especially when the benefits of flexibility and convenience are factored in.
Bombardier, one of the leading manufacturers in the field, expects strong growth in the business jets market, with its financial projections showing deliveries worth $65.8m (£37.7m) over the next five years, as shared between itself, Cessna, Dassault, Gulfstream and Raytheon and other, smaller companies. Bombardier itself delivered 128 business jets in the financial year ending January 2005 compared with 89 in 2004. Bombardier also operates Skyjet, which offers its own jet card and on-demand charters.
In the future, fewer companies and individuals may have a jet they can truly call their own, but as new forms of operation and ownership multiply, more people are likely to have access to the private jet experience.