The sky is no longer the limit at Harrods

Taxi-drivers who tout for business outside the hallowed doors of Harrods in Knightsbridge are set for a nice little earner, dashing along a motorway to one of three London airports to enable the rich and famous to sample the store's new line in aviation.

Mohamed Al Fayed, the head of the family owners of Harrods, has shelled out pounds 1m to buy Hunting Business Aviation, and an undisclosed sum for a 10-year lease on an executive jet centre at Heathrow.

Mr Al Fayed, who is never knowingly understated and is the owner of a G4 aircraft and Sikorsky helicopter, said: "This is a unique opportunity because this is a unique company. I have an ambitious programme of development and no plans will be spared in making this the best company of its kind anywhere in the world."

Hunting Business Aviation operates out of Luton, Stansted and Heathrow airports. It is being sold by its joint owners, Hunting and British Petroleum. The executive jet centre is being sold by Hunting for pounds 7m to BAA, which will then lease it to Harrod's newly created Metro Business Aviation division.

Harrods' association with aviation predates the foundation of the Royal Air Force. In 1903 the building and decorating department at Harrods was commissioned to build an oversized shed in London's Alexander Park for a Dr Barton (no relation to Dick) who was experimenting with airships.

By 1909 the Christmas stockings at stately homes could be topped off with a toy aeroplane fresh off the shelves in Knightsbridge, and by 1917 pilots of Tiger Moths could bravely go into a dogfight over France kitted out in Harrods' own aviators' fur-lined overcoats - a snip at 16 guineas each - a cap lined with chamois leather and trimmed with beaver fur for 18 shillings and sixpence, and a fashionable pair of goggles for one guinea.

A year after the First World War the department store went into aviation big-time, opening an aeroplane department. The advertisement in Harrod News on 7 April 1919 set out the range of goods available: "Anyone requiring a nice two-seater monoplane at pounds 450, or a fine flying boat at pounds 1,500, the cheapest in the country, can at once be accommodated."

The monoplane, the advertisement added, was just 20ft 6in long - "small enough to land in Piccadilly" - and no more expensive to keep than a "20- horsepower motor car".

Enthusiasm for flying among the public, however, did not appear to translate into sales. The aeroplane department was mothballed in the early 1920s, and was not rolled out of its second-floor hangar again until 1930 when Harrods decided to repackage its aeronautical offering by selling flying lessons and running an aeroplane hire service.

Light aeroplanes were lifted by crane to the second floor, and customers could purchase a bottom-of-the-range Gypsy Moth for pounds 700, and Gypsy Moth seaplanes from pounds 900.

"All prices are subject to market fluctuations," customers were told, although, if they were short of a bob or two, Harrods would willingly "take your car in part exchange".

The department was grounded yet again when the Luftwaffe took to the skies over Europe in 1939. Harrods aviation was not revived after the Second World War.

Mr Al Fayed, though, is keen to take Harrods to the skies once more and in true Harrods style.

"This will be a six-star service," a spokesman said, who added that it was time to put the tiny UK executive jet business on the map.

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