The local high street jet shop
Got a spare $50m and can't stand the queues at Heathrow? Get yourself down to London's first private plane dealership. Tim Walker checks in
Tim Walker is The Independent’s Los Angeles correspondent, covering entertainment and other concerns from the West Coast of the US. He was previously a features writer and the editor of the paper’s diary column. His first novel, Completion, is being published in January 2014.
Wednesday 15 February 2012
Knightsbridge, that sportscar-clogged junction just south of Hyde Park, is home to the highest priced high street in Britain. Forget the fate of the average town centre, littered with boarded-up shop fronts. Here, Harrods and Harvey Nicks sit within air-kissing distance of Europe's largest Rolex shop, Bulgari's flagship store and the McLaren showroom.
Among the neighbourhood's international, ultra-high net-worth residents is Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, who in 2007 paid a reported £136m for the most expensive flat in London's most expensive development, One Hyde Park. In December, an anonymous buyer spent £100m on an unfurnished duplex across the road in the brand new Bulgari Hotel and Residence.
Until last month, however, something was missing from this super-rich retail park. Cars and diamond watches are all very well, but where's a billionaire supposed to buy himself a plane? Answer: at The Jet Business, "the world's first corporate aviation showroom for business jet aircraft", which has opened its doors at Hyde Park Corner. Inside, prospective buyers – oligarchs, princes, former prime ministers and Fortune 500 CEOs – can sample the life-size, luxury cabin of a $90m Airbus A319 corporate jet: oatmeal leather loungers, walnut-veneered drinks cabinet, and a James Bond Blu-Ray on the widescreen television.
The Jet Business is the brainchild of Steve Varsano, a tanned New Yorker with immaculate teeth and tailoring, who in 1985 was named Cosmopolitan's "Bachelor of the Month". Varsano has been working on the idea for five years, and spent 25 years in the corporate jet game before then. After graduating with a degree in aeronautical studies, he became a lobbyist for the air industry in Washington. There, he persuaded an acquaintance from the jet sales business to introduce him to his boss.
"I went to their office," he recalls, "and they were all wearing T-shirts, shorts, and sandals. I said: 'You guys sell jets?' and they told me, 'Well, we never meet our clients.' I'm always shocked that most people sell aircraft over the phone. To me, something like this requires a face-to-face relationship: if you're selling something for $50m, you'd think the buyer would want to know who they're buying it from." Quite.
There are around 19,000 private jets in the world, 200 of which are traded each month. Until 20 years ago, explains Varsano, 70 per cent were owned by Americans. "But it's now 40 per cent America, and 60 per cent outside. The market has moved East. Anyone who can afford an aircraft and is based in Africa, the CIS countries, the Middle East or Europe is going to come through London. And if they come through London, they probably come through Knightsbridge, Mayfair or Belgravia."
More than two-thirds of Varsano's clients are individuals, rather than corporations or governments, and many of them are unversed in aeronautics – which is where his firm's other USP comes in. The Jet Business has its own iPad app, which connects to the showroom's video wall and helps clients to choose the ideal model for them. Varsano says it reduces what used to be a three-month process to one hour.
In reception is a scale model of the Gulfstream 550, which will set you back $52m. What if one's budget was more modest? "You could get a plane for a million bucks," says Varsano. "But it's going to be 35 years old." So no Blu-Ray player, then?
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