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

Sun, Aug 06, 2006 - Page 12

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.

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.