Once the sole preserve of showbiz royalty and the super-rich, private air travel is now cheaper and more accessible than ever. Can you resist the lure of the Learjet?

It is not often that I have the words of erstwhile film director and full-time bon viveur Michael Winner ringing in my ears, but then today is no ordinary day. As I am spirited towards Farnborough in Hampshire, where a dinky little aeroplane is waiting to whisk me, in some considerable style, to Zurich for the sheer hell of it, his prediction comes flooding back to me. We were talking about the ostentatious thrill that comes from commandeering your own private jet. "Trust me," he'd said. "It really is quite the only way to fly."

Well, the anticipation I feel certainly beats the more customary sensation of dread that I experience whenever trundling towards an airport. Foreign travel is, of course, a magical thing, but in these easyJet times, the experience of getting there can often be a wretched test of endurance typified by delays, crowds, the flatulence of your fellow passengers and the cold, hard stares of cabin crew.

Private jet travel in comparison, Michael Winner says, is luxury on an obscene scale. You are driven by a chauffeur to the airport, you fly whenever you want, and you get to do the whole thing largely in solitude (which is Mr Winner's particular preference, except when holidaying "with the girlfriend"). And as for food, order ahead and there is so much more on offer than the habitual chicken or pasta.

Once the sole preserve of filthy-rich CEOs and showbiz royalty, private jet travel is becoming increasingly accessible to the British public. Take the taxi driver currently carrying me to Farnborough. He isn't just a passenger; he flies the damn things. "At the weekends," he explains. "Helicopters mostly, but jets too."

And this is an affordable hobby for a lowly cabbie?

"It's £300 per hour," he says. "Expensive, but it's my favourite thing in the world, mate, so well worth it."

We arrive, and I am ferried to the door of my super- sleek Learjet 45 by a pilot with a toothy smile and benevolent demeanour. While I'm still settling into the leather upholstery of my James Bond baddie armchair - mobile phone still on, overnight bag at my feet rather than in the irritating hold - we're off down the runway and up into the sky, climbing steeply until we reach 41,000ft, way above both commercial airlines and the weather - which means no turbulence. Up here, it is an oasis of calm, a kind of heaven. I can't stop smiling: at the shagpile carpet, at the basket of fruit, at Chariots of Fire on my private DVD. Then, barely 65 minutes later (faster than its commercial equivalent by a good half hour), we come into land, scooting right past Zurich's terminals and into the VIP section. I clear customs in five seconds (no, I'm not exaggerating) and, while regular people are still queueing for their baggage, I've checked into my hotel and have repaired to the bar where a barmaid more beautiful than I deserve pours me some wine and leaves me the bottle.

The arguments for private jet travel, then, pretty much speak for themselves. The cachet, too, is priceless. Fly private, and you join an exclusive club peopled by the likes of Sharon Osbourne, P Diddy and Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page. And while Chelsea chairman Roman Abramovich has recently shelled out £56m for his latest customised Boeing, my more subtle seven-seater version of the Learjet 45 can be yours for a mere £7m. But, let's face it, jet ownership is largely reserved for Abramovich's ilk. Michael Winner, rich but not foolishly so (he would argue), doesn't recommend it.

"Anybody who buys one is an idiot," he says. "Far too much aggravation, and what's the point? Far better to rent. Renting is the most sensible thing I ever did. The most ridiculous thing I ever did was not rent earlier."

Quite. And he is not alone in his opinions, either. Over the past few years, jet rental has become a booming business. One outfit, Skyjet, has seen its client base expand by 30 per cent a year by offering a multitude of deals, the most popular for businesses being blocks of 25 hours which retail for £67,000. For those of us with a more modest income, it also offers one-off charter flights - ideal, says Skyjet's Alec McRitchie, for weekend breaks.

"Let's say, for example, you and some friends want to go skiing in St Moritz," he begins. "With a commercial flight, you'd have to fly to Zurich, which is a three-hour taxi ride away. But charter your own jet, and you can fly direct to the resort and be skiing within 10 minutes of landing."

Divided between seven of you, this could work out as cheap as £700 per person. He makes it all sound hideously tempting. As does PR to the stars Max Clifford, first introduced to the pleasures of private travel by Frank Sinatra. Being the demon PR he so obviously is, Clifford represents a jet company called Club 328, which ferries him and his A-list clients all through Europe and beyond for free in return for a little publicity, which he duly provides in spades. As a result, he flies, "20, 30 times a year [with Brian McFadden, with Mohamed Al Fayed, with Kerry Katona], and it's wonderful. It really does spoil you."

And this, clearly, is its key attraction. Yes, it may be a convenient way to fly, but more appealing still is its attendant luxury and the utter absence of the rules and regulations that can make regular flying such a tedious task. I ask one PR if any of his company's clients ever misbehave on board. His response is discretion personified: "A pilot closes his door to give clients privacy. As far as we're concerned, all that is happening back there are business meetings."

And so I ask Michael Winner instead. Is he, perchance, a member of the Mile High Club? "Have you seen the inside of a private jet? It's tiny! You'd need a course in aerobics before you could squeeze yourself inside the toilets, much less take anybody else with you. And anyway," he concedes, haughtily, "I think [that kind of thing] only appeals to Essex men."

The morning after my sweet taster of aerodynamic decadence, reality welcomes me back with a cruel body blow. My commercial flight to London is delayed a full hour, and in the absence of a limo to collect me from the airport, I am forced to take the Heathrow Express, which is crippled by signal problems. By the time I get home, I'm exhausted. And, in my somewhat sensitive state, I find myself in agreement with something Michael Winner said.

"Public transport of any kind," he huffed, "is an absolute nightmare."

Nick Duerden flew to Zurich courtesy of Skyjet International. Useful links: www.skyjetinternational.com; www.gamagroup.com, www.club328.com

Flights of fancy: A private jet buyers' guide

Bombardier Learjet 45

Seats 9

Range 2,338 miles

Speed 534mph

Size 57ft 7in

Price £6m

Star owner French film director Luc Besson

Dassault Falcon 2000EX

Seats 10

Range 4,373 miles

Speed 528mph

Size 66ft 4in long

Price £15m

Star owner A number of Formula One bosses

Gulfstream 550

Seats 19

Range 7,697 miles

Speed 656mph

Size 96ft 8in

Price £23m

Star owner Billionaire businessman Philip Green

Boeing Business Jet

Seats 149

Range 7,130 miles

Speed 608mph

Size 110ft 4in

Price £43m

Star owner Roman Abramovich has two

Airbus A340-300

Seats 335

Range 8,295 miles

Speed 638mph

Size 208ft

Price £96m

Star owner The Sultan of Brunei

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