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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

By aircraft Farischon is referring not to self-piloted two-seaters but to multimillion-dollar machines like an Embraer Lineage 1000, a Citation X, or a Gulfstream IV or Gulfstream V, respectively the aeronautic versions of a Lexus or Mercedes-Benz. At least one of each was parked, chevron-fashion, on the tarmac one quiet recent Monday, as was a Boeing 727 retrofitted for private use.

As much as 80 percent of private air travel is now undertaken for leisure rather than business, say some in the industry. While private aircraft sales have risen lately, according to Dan Hubbard, the spokesman for the National Business Aviation Association, those increases must be measured against a years-long slump.

"It's not that there are so many more planes being sold," Hubbard said. "It's that there are more options" for private flying to suit evolving consumer demand.

CALM AND CLUBBY

From the number of tan, fit people ambling through the club-like lounge at Aspen's private airport -- wearing Chanel jeans and Franck Muller watches and accompanied by their dogs and children -- the assertion is easy to credit. In contrast to the harried atmosphere of a commercial airport, here all is calm and clubby. Even the dreaded check-in procedure amounts to little more than identifying one's pilot from among the various uniformed personnel slouched in overstuffed chairs.

The rise of private aviation is thought to have begun with the purchase by Warren Buffett, the Omaha investor, of NetJets in 1998. Under the NetJets scheme of fractional-share ownership, buyers purchase, say, a 16th of a Hawker 400XP for about US$400,000, or the same fraction of a Gulfstream 550 for roughly five times that amount, and then negotiate, much as time-share holders in a condominium might, for use of the plane. Then as now, fractional-share owners tended to be either large corporations or the ultra-rich.

But as a certain group of Americans became richer and air travel became generally unpleasant, an appetite also developed for the fine perks of private air travel among what in the industry are termed "high net worth individuals," people who are merely, rather than obscenely, rich.

To accommodate this new market, a passel of companies were formed like Bombardier Skyjet, CitationShares, Sentient Jet, Le Bas International and Marquis Jet, an affiliate of NetJets, each pitching its own version of a surprisingly simple concept: sell access to a private jet without the necessity of buying one. The companies sell "jet cards," not much different from buying a Starbucks card.

"You call up and say you want to fly from X place to X place," said Hubbard of the National Business Aviation Association. "They provide the equipment, swipe your card," and the hours disappear until one fills the card up again.

For US$299,000. That is the cost of a representative 25-hour Marquis Jet card with ready access to a Gulfstream IV-SP, a jet that seats 13 and has a 7,350km flight range. That is enough for a trans-Atlantic flight, although a great many consumers use their hours to reach the dinky airports that are convenient to nothing except, as it happens, the finest golf course in the country.

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