A plane of your own - The height of indulgence

From football fans to Tony Blair, these days they'll let anyone hire a private jet. Helen Brown checks into the booming world of luxury travel that's now taking off from an airport near you
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The Independent Online

"Money," sang Pink Floyd, "it's a hit. Don't give me that do-goody good bullshit. I'm in the high-fidelity first-class travelling set and I think I need a Lear jet."

The sneering mid-1970s lyric perfectly captured the European disdain for the conspicuously consumed private jet. But 30 years later, we're catching up with America's longstanding love affair with this most exclusive means of transportation.

For the private jet is not just for show - it's for efficiency. And with prices occasionally cheaper than commercial first-class tickets and an increasing number of companies owning, sharing and chartering planes, many business-folk are getting used to scything through the lines at terminals, the lost luggage, the striking caterers and the inflexible flight times. Recently, the legal trade press reported that the London-based law firm, Clifford Chance, had hired one of Alan Sugar's fleet of jets to take clients to World Cup matches. "It works out cheaper than putting everyone up for the night," one partner told The Lawyer.

Clifford Chance isn't the only one hiring its own wings. There are now more than 1,000 charter operators in Europe, with executive jets making around 1,000 flights across the continent every day. In May 2006, Eurocontrol (the Brussels-based air traffic control agency) announced that business flights are growing by a further 4 per cent every year, and will account for 1,100 extra flights per day, by 2016.

Rolling up to the London City Airport Jet Centre on a hot summer day, the runway shivers beneath the wheels of the small white planes. I don't know if the illusion is caused by heat distortion, or my own seriously jet-lagged brain. If anybody is in a position to crave a swift and personally tailored flight, then I am, having just flown back from Boston with a heavily delayed cut-price commercial carrier.

I step through the door and breeze, queue-less, through security. The man X-raying my bag even has time for a joke. I'm led into a simple "Directors' Lounge". There are no frills, just comfortable leather chairs, a table and a drinks tray. My tea arrives in a pot and on the other side of the glass wall, a few small planes are parked metres from my seat. I flick through an old issue of Variety about the Hollywood stars and the planes which protect their privacy and help them indulge anti-social habits. Hugh Grant famously called the plane of the chain-smoking Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein "the flying ashtray".

With steadily rising eyebrows, I read that John Travolta owns a whopping "Boeing 707" and Steven Spielberg has a "Global Express". Ben Affleck, Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Stiller have the use of private planes written into their contracts, while a company called NetJets runs a time-share scheme to which clients contribute around $1m a year, plus maintenance, for 50 hours' airtime: clients include Harrison Ford, Julia Roberts, Mel Gibson, Nicole Kidman and Tom Hanks. I cringe at the indulgence, but a friend (and lifetime private jet owner) assured me these planes are essential for this sort of lifestyle: "and the engines are more fuel efficient than on big airliners. I don't think they're as environmentally damaging."

I'm wondering if that's true when the tall, broad and confidently courteous Darren Grover, head of business aviation at City Airport, strides in. I ask: "You're the man to talk to about private jets, then?" "Just call me God," laughs the man who started out at Stansted (who knows that the Saudi royal family fly into plebby old Ryanairville because of the long runways?)

Over the course of our conversation, he does seem to acquire some fairly Godlike powers. This is a man who can put you pretty much anywhere in the world, any time you want to be there. Dine on lobster, champagne and Angel Delight then land atop a Swiss Alp, Sir? No problem. A helicopter from the strip to your hotel? Certainly. You're running a couple of hours late, Madam? I'll tell the pilot. Oh, and can I take your empty cup?

As a private jet virgin, I need to know everything. For starters, where can I fly to and from in this way? "Private aviation operates at almost every airport in the world," he says.

Grover is clearly proud of the service he offers at City. "If you've chartered a jet you know it's going to be there, with the crew. I try to make sure the customs and immigration service is slick. I like the fact that, if you've been here before, my reception staff will remember you drink gin and tonic, and it'll be waiting for you when you walk through the door. This is a simple lounge, but we very much hope you won't be here long enough to look at it."

So how far in advance of travel do you have to arrive? "Oh, a long time," he nods. "Sometimes more than 30 seconds. The engines should be running. It's your aircraft, whether you own it or you've hired it. If you've chartered a plane to Milan at 2pm and you're still shopping, what are we going to do? Cancel the flight? No. We're waiting. And because we're a small airport we don't have departure slots, like Heathrow, for example, where a five-hour delay is not uncommon if you miss your scheduled take-off time. We can't control the weather, but you won't be held here because of airport delays."

Will some delays also be avoided because private jets fly at different altitudes? "Most fly higher than most scheduled traffic. The plane behind you flies at 41,000ft and most airliners fly at around 35,000ft. Commercial aviation companies are often too busy to tailor-make routes, but we're not. We can plot something around all those other chunks of metal in the sky. We have one frequent passenger who's scared of flying. He was going to Italy and we saw some mega-turbulence, called wind sheer, on the way. So we rerouted him so that he spent another five minutes in the air, but avoided the weather."

I have read that you are 10 times more likely to die on a private jet than a commercial one, but it seems that these stats are bumped up by owner-pilots. A professional pilot in the cockpit gives you the normal chances of surviving a flight.

Grover tells me that the European charter market has soared in recent years, and that more planes are flying for leisure and corporate entertainment than ever before. "European shareholders traditionally objected to corporates owning jets," he says. "Now they are realising that owning or part-owning jets can save them money."

What's the cost of "sitting in a comfortable living-room in the sky, being waited on hand and foot?" Grover gets businesslike. "It varies. I'd need you to tell me a flight time and destination, a length of stay and how many passengers. Let's say a bunch of you were going to the World Cup - a day trip to Germany. I'd recommend the Citation Bravo, an entry-level jet which would seat six in comfort." We walk over and I squelch deep into a creamy leather seat and cast a beady eye over the bucket of Veuve Clicquot, salad and six types of dressing set out for today's customers. "Prices are determined on hourly rates," continues Grover, "and operators vary. But the Bravo costs between £1,600-£1,800 per hour (for each passenger that's £267). That Hawker over there - bigger and faster - could be chartered for around £2,300 p/h."

The new range of Very Light Jets (VLJs) is set to roar into the sky this year, and this generation of three-to-six-seater planes will bring down prices significantly. Nobody knows what to expect yet, but some pundits fear that they will clutter the skies, attract dangerous owner-fliers and degrade the swank-value of private flight. One aviation journalist draws a comparison with limos: "they used to be for movie stars and now they're for hen nights, right? That's what the VLJ might do to the private jet image."

But if all private jetting is out of your price range and you fancy a slice of the lifestyle, then you could always become a crew member. LEA Captain Sharon Nicholson, donning her pink shades to take the controls of the Citation, tells me it's a great plane to fly. And an unpredictable life. I call Gail Hopke in California, author of Beyond the Red Carpet: How to Become a Flight Attendant on a Private Jet, and she regales me with tales of serving water-buffalo sandwiches to Dutch billionaires in the Amazon jungle, about planes with gold-plated showers. "I would worry about safety now more than I used to," she admits. "I do think that private jets could be a terrorist target now. But, the one time I was in a plane that got into trouble - with ice - I remember feeling I loved the job so much I was ready to go down with the plane."

Taxis of the air

* AIRBUS A320

This is essentially the same plane you may have flown on for a European package holiday. A 180-seater version will cost £200 per seat for a return trip to the World Cup; a 150-seater version with much better catering will cost £300 per seat.

* GULFSTREAM 550

This is pretty close to the fantasy image of a private jet. It can seat 15 passengers, but a popular configuration features a sofa bed. It flies long distances non-stop. Return to New York would cost about £100,000. (aircharterserviceplc.com)

* CESSNA CITATION EXCEL

This jet seats eight or nine, depending on configuration. It flies at 500mph at altitudes up to 45,000ft and has a range of 2,000 miles. Palma is a popular destination - a return trip would be about £15,000 (Bookajet.com).

* PIPER CHEYENNE

The Piper Cheyenne is well suited for taking, say, City bankers to Liverpool for an evening football match (around £2,500). It cruises at 230kmph. You get a hamper, but go easy, there's no lavatory. (www.aircharterserviceplc.com)

* RAYTHEON PREMIER 1

A modern, fast craft, this is from the smallest category, the "light jet". It seats six, and is suited to a return journey to near-European destinations - Malaga or Lisbon. A return trip from London to Nice would cost about £9,000.

* LEAR 55/60

Much like the Citation Excel, though with a smaller cabin and typically six passengers, the Lear 55/60 is often used for mid-European destinations. A return trip to Frankfurt will cost £8,000 to 10,000 (www.bookajet.com).

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