Berkshire Hathaway

The Jet Set

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 May, 2007, 12:00am

VICTORIA BECKHAM chartered one to watch her husband, David, play in football's World Cup in Germany. Macau casino tycoon Stanley Ho Hung-sun uses one to hop from meeting to meeting. Tom Cruise reportedly spent US$20 million on one for his wife, Katie Holmes. Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page have a bigger one than most, while local property tycoon Joseph Lau Luen-hung has three and John Travolta parks five on his front lawn.

For an increasing number of the rich and famous, private jets are the only way to fly. Businessmen remain the biggest users - commuter chief executives hop on board after breakfast for a lunch meeting 1,000km away and expect to be home by dinner - but for others it's the style, comfort and incomparable luxury of having one's own flying machine, rather than convenience, which is the lure.

'The champagne's better and you can smoke, which is a rare pleasure these days at 36,000 feet,' says American Idol judge and media mogul Simon Cowell - a regular transatlantic traveller - about his penchant for private-jet travel. Many superstars now bring their own chefs, while Hollywood A-listers take an entourage replete with hair and make-up artists to ensure they arrive immaculately presented for the next big party.

A private jet is the rich person's taxi. Seventy per cent of jet owners are male, with an average age of 57, an average annual income of US$9.2 million and a net worth of US$89.3 million, according to statistics provider ITFacts. But flying privately is no longer the preserve of the super-rich, or VVIPs as they're known in the trade. A growing number of people who count their wealth in millions rather than billions - your plain old VIPs - are chartering flights or purchasing flight hours because they make economic sense as well as being more fun.

Europe's elite use them to go fishing off the Turks and Caicos islands or to go skiing in Kitzbuhel, but more commonly, private carriers are selling flights to couples who fancy a romantic jaunt to Venice or Paris, or groups of sports fans who want a night at the tables in Monte Carlo or to watch Chelsea play a European game in Valencia. It's like having a stretch limo in the sky.

Europe's largest private carrier, NetJets, is tapping heavily into this market. Mark Booth, the company's chief executive, says: 'Every flight is non-stop. Everyone is polite. You go straight from your home or office to the plane. Flying used to be a civilised experience. And now it is again.'

In the US there are 13,000 private aircraft and the private aviation industry is worth more than US$100 billion - a sharp contrast to the Asian market.

'In Asia we lag a long way behind the US,' says Chris Buchholz, executive director and chief operating officer of Hong Kong Aviation Group, which runs Asian private carrier Metrojet and helicopter company Heliservices. 'People are not aware of the advantages. Most of our clientele is from North America, although that's starting to change.'

While private-jet makers and retailers such as Boeing Business Jets, Gulfstream Aerospace and Bombardier Aerospace have recorded big growth in the Asian market over the past few years, the figures remain low in world terms.

The Business Aviation Centre (BAC) at Chek Lap Kok handles about 3,000 private flights a year, a tenfold increase on a decade ago, but less than some small airports in the US. China has only a few dozen jets - exact figures are impossible to obtain - whereas Brazil has more than 700. There are just 3,000 or so private or corporate jets registered in the whole of Asia.

Although buyers are looking at US$30 million upwards to buy a top-of-the-range Gulfstream, plus at least US$1 million in maintenance costs (excluding fuel and flying expenses), price is not the main stumbling block, Buchholz says. Companies such as Metrojet offer charter flights for US$3,000 to US$5,000 an hour. For a company that wants to fly several top executives around several Chinese cities, it can represent a saving. What could take days of travel on regular flights (and some Chinese fliers don't have first class) can be done in one or two days with a private jet, cutting hotel bills, lengthy waits for connections and wasted work hours. Private jets can land at the nearest airport to the destination. 'Travellers can even have board meetings on board,' Buchholz says. 'Productivity is a lot higher.'

Then there is the comfort factor. The BAC's terminal has its own customs area that clears passengers in just a few minutes. It also offers executive travellers private rooms, showers, business centre facilities and other luxury amenities.

Metrojet, which started in the late 1990s, has increased its fleet to five, with three of those planes available for charter. And while business is growing, Buchholz says the majority of Metrojet's customers still fall into the VVIP category. High landing fees combined with costly and difficult-to-arrange permits for using airspace over some Asian countries means tariffs can equal the fuel bill on some trips, he says, limiting the growth of private jet travel in Asia. So too does the lack of local airports: China has about 100 airports; the US has 10,000.

As the number of Chinese and Asian billionaires grows, governments should realise the economic benefits of making private flying easier and more affordable, Buchholz says.

In its annual report on private jet trends, Elite Traveler, the lifestyle magazine devoted to the industry, says private jets have become common enough in the west to call them the 'rich man's taxi'. 'Very light jets make travel as easy and convenient as a limo service. It is cheaper, too,' it claims.

Another modern trend is that 'bigger is better', with 737s increasingly being ordered by customers who fit them with media rooms, flashy bars and large master bedrooms. Google duo Brin and Page are living proof. They recently purchased a Boeing 767 - almost twice as long and three times heavier than the popular Gulfstream - which has two bedrooms with ensuites, a gallery and extended sitting area that can accommodate up to 20 people. Other major trends are to have gourmet food served on board, the use of private jets by rich sports fans and people giving private jet flights as gifts to friends and family.

'Truly, only the sky is the limit for today's elite traveller,' writes Douglas Gollan, president and editor-in-chief of Elite Traveler. 'As big jets get even bigger, big names in everything from interiors to cuisine will play a role.'

Another issue that nags at some frequent fliers, such as environmental campaigner Al Gore, however, is the green perspective. The Google duo's 767, for instance, burns roughly 7,000 gallons of jet fuel on a trip between New York and San Francisco, according to green observers, meaning their 'carbon footprint' is the size of Sasquatch's.

While some private jet companies such as Silverjet and Executive Charter Services help assuage their passengers' guilt by offsetting their carbon emissions with environmental programmes, there's a growing awareness that more planes in the sky adds to the problem of global warming.

Famous fliers such as Gore have copped media flak for this, but Buchholz says the economic benefits of private air travel are often overshadowed by the glamour and glitz that come with it. 'It's an industry that employs one and a half million people,' he says. Most of those are in the US and Europe but, Buchholz points out, the number is rising in Asia as the region tries to emulate the west. And if the costs come down, soon the wealthy middle class here may be able join the tycoons by taking to the skies in a rich man's taxi.

Flying high

The cost of private-jet travel

Hong Kong -Taipei - Hong Kong

Aircraft: Gulfstream G200

Seats: 10

Flight time: 3 hours, same day

Distance: 1,612km

Price: US$22,500

Airline: Metrojet

Booking: 2525 4747;

Edinburgh to Paris

Aircraft: Citation Bravo

Seats: 6-7

Flight time: 1 hour 40 minutes, same day

Distance: 875 km

Price: Euro8,818 (HK$93,700)

Airline: Netjets Europe

Booking: 44 207 361 9620;

NB: Flyer must prepay at least 25 hours flying time for minimum Euro130,000, or Euro5,200 an hour.

Hong Kong - Shanghai - Tokyo - Hong Kong

Aircraft: Gulfstream G200

Seats: 10

Flight time: 8 hours 40 minutes, over three days

Distance: 6,011 km

Price: US$69,883

Airline: Metrojet

Booking: 2525 4747;

Prices (subject to change without notice) include three crew (a captain, a co-pilot and a cabin attendant), handling, landing, parking, catering and overflight charges.