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Sun, Aug 06, 2006 - Page 12 News List

The rarefied air of private flights

Travel by private jet is now within reach of the lesser rich, who seem happy to hand over US$250,000 for a piece of the action

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , ASPEN, COLORADO

Whether the joys of summer are riper for plutocrats than for the rest of us is always open to question. Would watermelon taste sweeter if you had a billion in the bank? Let me spit out this seed, check my bank balance and get back to you. As vacation season reaches its peak this month and millions of Americans jam the highways and skies seeking a precious portion of leisure, there is at least one way in which it becomes clear that the very rich are indeed very different from the rest of us.

That difference can be described in two simple words, almost magical to those who partake: flying private.

Just two decades ago, private aviation was exclusively the province of a global super-elite. That was before airline deregulation and 9/11 turned commercial air travel into the noisy, cramped, humiliating nightmare it is today. It was before the tech boom and hedge funds threw off bumper crops of multimillionaires. It was before innovations in the private aviation industry made it possible, first, for the ultra-wealthy to use the time-share model known as fractional share ownership to enter the big leagues of private jet travel and, more recently, for the merely rich to buy into jet-sharing plans that are the deep-pocketed equivalents of a mass transit fare card.

"Seven years ago, I was traveling a lot and I just got sick of the hassles," said Gavin Polone, a former Hollywood agent and now a producer whose credits include the cable television show Curb Your Enthusiasm and My Super Ex-Girlfriend.

For Polone, the moment marking his decision to defect from the ranks of airborne hoi polloi was a trip he took from New York to Los Angeles.

"I was in first class and there was a woman in business with a baby that screamed for five hours," he said. "And that did it."

Trans-Atlantic flights are now the only occasions on which Polone submits to commercial air travel's many indignities.

"In North America, I only fly privately," he said. "For me, what's important is excluding myself from people who might bum me out."

NO BUMMER PEOPLE

Even at an elevation of 2,600m, in the bright light and thin air of a resort where A-frame fixer-uppers change hands for seven figures, avoiding bummer people and situations takes work. Thus Aspen has become one of the places most cited -- Nantucket, Massachussets; Sea Island, Georgia; Sun Valley, Idaho; and Jackson, Wyoming, are several others -- on lists of the top US destinations for people who long ago left behind the sad pretzel mix and microwave cookies of in-flight snack service, and the weary attentions of airline employees who so often wear the expression of doomed souls working off a karmic debt.

"We're always operating at the edge of full capacity," said Chad Farischon, the general manager of Trajen FBO Network, which operates the private jetport a short drive from the modest commercial airport at Aspen.

During peak times like winter break and again in August -- a period when billionaires and Nobel laureates, destined for either the rigorous hiking trails of Maroon Bells or the equally strenuous Aspen Institute cocktail party circuit, descend in droves on the onetime mining town -- so many aircraft vie for parking spots at Aspen airport that the overrun has to be shunted to nearby Rifle or Vail.

"Jan. 2 this year, we had 150 aircraft that didn't get in," Farischon said.

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