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Flying high, in the lap of luxury
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Flying high, in the lap of luxury
by Jitendra Joshi 
Copyright Observer News

WASHINGTON, Oct 22, 2006 

If you have deep pockets and are fed up with the hassles of regular air travel, your options for flying in mile-high luxury are growing by the day.
The market for executive travel is evolving from small business jets, whose range is limited, to encompass long-haul Boeing 787s equipped with 42-inch (107-centimetre) plasma televisions, showers and penthouse suite bedrooms.
Along the way have come premium airlines offering new standards of service on lucrative transatlantic routes, and leasing companies like NetJets for customers who want to own a share of a private jet.
Flying privately means an escape from an hours-long wait to go through airport security, which grew even more stringent after an alleged plot to bomb US-bound airliners was broken up by British police in August.
But industry players say the main draw is the desire of corporate executives and the uber-wealthy to travel on their own terms, in their own style.
According to the Washington-based General Aviation Manufacturers Association, which represents makers of private jets, sales of such planes hit a record 1,843 in the first half of 2006, to total nearly nine billion dollars.
Five years of robust growth in the US economy has encouraged cash-rich companies to splash out on the ultimate status symbol, according to GAMA spokeswoman Katie Pribyl.
But she stressed that a bigger inducement is the practicality of owning or leasing your own jet to escape the shackles of airline timetables and congested airports.
‘‘When it comes to the time savings and the efficiency for your people, companies can’t really live without business jets to get their work done,’’ Pribyl said. ‘‘And business today is more global than ever before.’’
The National Business Aviation Association convention, held last week in Orlando, Florida saw a slew of orders for private jets made by the likes of Cessna and Boeing Business Jets (BBJ).
The Boeing unit is getting more orders from tycoons in Russia, the Middle East and Asia, according to BBJ president Steven Hill, who noted there is also a boom in sales of superyachts for the super-rich.
‘‘There’s simply a lot of new money out there and that wealth is growing. We’ve seen our market become truly global,’’ Hill told AFP by telephone from Orlando.
But he added that private jets are not just a plaything for the nouveau riche.
‘‘When they spend millions of dollars on an aircraft, there’s always a business return in their minds. The world is shrinking. It’s with vehicles like the BBJ 3 that the world can shrink in extreme comfort,’’ Hill said.
Lufthansa Technik, the research arm of the German carrier, unveiled a VIP jet based on the 787 Dreamliner to transport heads of state, corporate titans and Hollywood bigwigs pretty much anywhere in the world in unrivalled opulence.
At a starting list price of 150 million dollars, the 787 is strictly for the wealthy. And that’s before the millions more that are required for a tailor-made internal configuration by London-based Andrew Winch Designs.
Boeing and rival Airbus are trying to wrest sales from traditional players in the small-jet market such as Canada’s Bombardier, Embraer of Brazil and US company Gulfstream, which is working on the first supersonic private jet.
If breakneck speed is not your priority, upstarts like Eos and MAXjet claim to offer the best commercial flight experience from New York to London since the iconic Concorde was retired.
The year-old Eos bills itself as a ‘‘five-star hotel with wings’’. It offers just 48 first-class seats on a Boeing 757 typically built for 220 passengers.
MAXjet flies Boeing 767s filled entirely with business-class seats. Another company, Silverjet, plans to take on MAXjet from January.
The new transatlantic flyers do not divulge their financial performance, but Eos claims above-average ‘‘load factors’’ -- the average numbers of passengers on each flight -- of more than 60 percent.
Most of the airline’s passengers are investment bankers and hedge fund managers shuttling between the world’s foremost financial centres.
The founder of Eos, former British Airways executive Dave Spurlock, believes the niche carrier can weather any downturn in the financial markets because it is not saddled with the high overheads of traditional airlines like BA.
‘‘The trend into the future is clear cut: this market is better served with speciality airlines,’’ he told AFP, boasting that after the August scare, Eos suffered minimal delays and did not lose a single passenger’s bag.
‘‘We never have to compromise our service based on the needs of economy and leisure passengers. You get an enormous speed advantage as a result,’’ Spurlock said.
Not everyone is convinced that such operators represent a threat to the high-end business on which traditional carriers such as American Airlines and BA rely to generate most of their profits.
‘‘These peripheral services do represent a diversion of marginal traffic but at this point, I do not see them being a major threat,’’ said Ray Neidl, an aviation analyst at Calyon Securities in New York.
And for some, even a flight on Eos would be slumming it.
Boeing last week announced four orders for the 787 and three 747 jumbos all ‘‘specifically designated for the VIP market’’. It declined to identify the buyers, as per normal practice in a hush-hush industry where discretion is key.

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