Flying back to London from Nice we encounter some turbulence that sends champagne into the air. Instinctively, automatically by this point, everyone lifts their flutes accordingly, catching it and bringing it back to safety in what resembles a financially hazardous game of pelota.
I am, of course, not on a Ryanair flight, where you question whether oxygen itself will even be complimentary, but a private jet.
I'm on a jet brokered by Victor to be precise, a company that is essentially 'Uber of private jets', though they probably won't be fond of this comparison because frankly who does want to be associated with Uber by this point. We've seen the Uber-fication (a process that can be simplified to 'cut out the middleman, move everything to an app') of so many industries over the past decade and the private jet market (worth $12-14bn a year) is one of the unlikely ones among them. I say unlikely because I don't imagine anyone expects the concept of a bargain to interest the kind of people who use private jets, and just assumes that anachronistic red tape/phoning up cigar-smoking brokers in leatherbound chairs is all part of it.
Nevertheless, founder and CEO Clive Jackson sensed a demand for the process to be streamlined after being triggered by a familiar problem. While you or I might bemoan the state of public transport when a train is cancelled and consider shelling out for a cab home, Jackson was frustrated by the closure of an airline route to his second home in Mallorca and wondered if flying privately wasn't so expensive. It turned out it was - and complicated to boot - so he founded Victor, which cuts out the middleman between decadent traveller and jet owner, driving down the price and up the transparency of the process. But I digress into business - back to the hitherto-never-experienced-by-your-correspondent level of opulence:
Arriving at a quiet, unassuming lot of smaller buildings away from the mass transit terminals at London Stansted in a car arranged by Victor, my photographer and I, who have been invited along for a flight, are ushered into a departure lounge (fig. 1) where the flock wallpaper is thick and the bondage of the paper in the gratis high-end magazines is thicker. It's completely empty, and is for most customers as the chances of having two jets departing at the same time is fairly slim; occasionally you might run into a football team or a Saudi property developer, but for the most part it's just you, a billion sofas and all the buffet/beverages you can eat/drink. Immediately (as there is literally nothing to cause delays) we're ushered through a miniature version of security, which is as thorough as it would be in a main terminal but carried out with the kind of 'the usual, please' casualness you'd expect from a familiar barman.
Out on the tarmac (fig. 2), the private jet gleams so hard in the sunlight it appears to go "ting!" and, after obligatory selfies that I deeply loathe myself for, we climb the stairs and enter the cabin. The interior of the plane (fig. 3) is decked out in cream leather and has the sort of furnishings/general vibe that makes you think, 'I should be doing politics here'. The wood is marbled, the lighting is soft and the blankets are tightly rolled and nestled between chairs and sofas. A stack of the sort of papers you're likely to want to read if you travel like this (fig. 4) are perched by an armrest and minimalist bowls of cherries dot the cabin.
Full of aforementioned beverages, I head to the jet's bathroom (fig. 5), which is concealed behind a wooden door/wall that has that 'kssst-chhawwww' opening motion when you press it that you know must be logistically fairly simple but never fails to come with a pleasing, sci-fi frisson. Aeroplane bathrooms are fascinating, I guess because the concept of relieving yourself in the air is so surreal - like a Magritte painting gone wrong - and the jet's doesn't disappoint. A bathroom's fanciness and self-regard can be determined by its hand-drying facility and, sure enough, there are no blundering hand dryers or limp paper towels here but substantial square flannels. There is also a drawer filled with every toiletry you could possibly require and get this: the toilet itself is concealed beneath a leather fitted cushion so that you don't have to be reminded of it and its whole deal for any longer than is necessary.
Returning to my seat and buckling in we begin take-off, which is a swift procedure with such a sharp incline that drinks have to be trapped under a hand lest they slide down the table away from you. After a round of champagne, lunch is served (fig. 6 & 7) on black, leaden slates, pre-approved from a menu. Aeroplane food is notoriously un-food-like even in first class but, while my photographer's omelette has a low-level prefab vibe going on, my plate of smoked salmon and successive cheeses look and taste completely of Earth. You can eat and drink pretty much whatever your heart desires though, from fine spirits to a McDonald's Happy Meal.
Catering requests Victor has previously met
- Sushi from a Mayfair restaurant for a party of 80.
- Crabs from a crab shack in Florida for a flight to the Caribbean, where a VIP BBQ followed.
- Short notice picked onion Monster Munch crisps for a major businessman on a flight from Eastern Europe.
Almost everything is customisable. The cabin can be redecorated as appropriate, given advance warning, and animals are welcome, something that is popular with customers who want to avoid their pets travelling in a cage in the hold.
Some notable previous passengers
An 80kg Leonberger dog
Nine identical pugs
10 small bunny rabbits
After lunch, enough patisserie to feed an A380 (fig. 8) is circulated, the leftovers going to the pilots (fig. 9) who seem to be having the most relaxed, pleasurable shift.
After about an hour we touch down in Nice, southern France and that's when - beyond the frivolous luxury - the first unquestionable pro of this mode of transport hits us: we feel fine and not like we've travelled. No exhaustion or ambient confusion or post-transfers stress or bodily ossification caused by having had an air-conditioning valve blasted at your eyeballs. You could actually continue to have a productive, enjoyable day and not want to just immediately pass out face down on your hotel room bed. This concession of pragmatism is put to one side though when we enter the private jet arrivals lounge, which has the slightest grasp on reality viewed on the day. A long corridor, it looks a lot like a duty free hall, except instead of perfume, adapters and those ineffective neck pillows, it sells, among other absurdities, a 30,000€ bottle of cognac (fig. 10), gold Egyptian ornaments (fig. 11) and a designer armchair made out of fake white rabbits (fig. 12). A sales assistant offers me a business card hopefully, which I accept with an apologetic smile. Later in the day we'll return on the plane departing half an hour later than expected, because it only has to deliver you and you can return whenever you please, damnit.
So what price, this alien level of opulence? I have a vertiginous figure in my head, but actually the cost is lower than expected. A London to Nice flight like this has a guideline price of £16,600 which, split between 10 passengers (the capacity for this type of jet) is £1,600 - a hell of a lot of money, yes, but not so much larger than the cost of a first-class ticket on a charter flight. It's in the realm of once-in-a-lifetime 40th birthday celebration for some, a business trip for big companies, and it's easy to see why record labels, film studios etc are switching to renting private jets instead of owning them, the cost of buying one of these planes involving just nonsensical sums like £20 million and requiring expensive upkeep. It's not just bankers and Biebers using them for work trips either, with Victor seeing an even split of flights for leisure and business.
With pricing that appeals to a demographic a couple of percent wider than The 1%, millennials tending to value experiences over material objects and bookings only requiring a phone app instead of an address book of west London-based brokers with whom to negotiate, the private jet hire market is growing (Victor sales revenue has grown 946% over a 4-year period) and starting to entice more than just the Quaalude-popping hedge fund manager or veteran rockstar.
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