Abu Dhabi-based international luxury flight services provider Royal Jet is the world's largest independent Boeing Business Jets (BBJ) operator.
There is one thing money can buy: convenience. Such as the luxury of flying almost anywhere in the world, at any time. And as people and businesses grow richer, so too is the executive jet industry.
In response, Airbus Corporate Jets (ACJ), the largest executive jet manufacturer, last month launched its new ACJneo collection, which has already taken one order.
Boeing Business Jets (BBJ) also last month announced orders for two of its business aircraft and Gulfstream revealed an agreement with Qatar Executive, the charter arm of Qatar Airways, to purchase up to 30 of its executive jets.
Private charter firms in the UAE are doing exceptionally well. Abu Dhabi’s Royal Jet has seen 10 percent annual growth in bookings, while Emirates Executive, which only launched in 2013-14, expects to grow 20 percent this year. DC Aviation Al Futtaim, which manages executive jets at Al Maktoum Airport in Dubai World Central, has seen a trebling in traffic since launching at the facility in November 2013.
“I see quite a lot of growth, especially in the upscale, luxury end of the market,” says Patrick Gordon, acting president and CEO of Royal Jet, which is the world’s largest BBJ customer and has two new planes on order.
“We were discussing the other day the number of people who are accumulating comfortable enough masses of wealth to be able to afford their own executive jets. The market is expanding quite strongly in the upscale end; it’s also expanding in the high net worth corporate range, as well.”
DC Aviation Al Futtaim charter sales manager Paul James says March and April were his business’ busiest months since opening.
“[Other industry leaders] have all told me that in the first four months of the year, the market has been great, it’s definitely picked up and it’s primarily GCC clients, mainly driven by the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which is pretty typical,” he says.
“The GCC clients understand the advantages of private jets; primarily it offers flexibility that commercial aircrafts cannot offer. You’ve got luxury and status as well.”
Similar to a house or car, plane owners can configure and design the interior of their aircraft, and when you have got money, almost anything goes.
The number of billionaires globally varies by analyst from 1,826 (Forbes) to 2,325 (Wealth-X). But both agree, scores more are being made every year, including in the Middle East.
Total billionaire wealth in the Middle East region increased by 16.7 percent last year, according to Wealth-X. That means a lot more potential executive jet customers, each wanting their own personalised plane.
James says the most elaborate private jet he has seen is an interior entirely decorated — from walls to ceiling — with Roman murals.
“There were bookcases too; it was just strange, absolutely bizarre. I’ve never seen anything like it before; it was almost like someone’s living room in a plane,” he says.
ACJ marketing director David Velupillai says the configuration of private jets depends on the customer. Government buyers often prefer one private VIP area at the front of the plane and an economy-style layout at the rear, while corporates may seek a more spacious layout with several tables and chairs, often reclining.
Wealthy individuals vary but usually include a luxurious lounge room setting for entertaining or relaxing and a private area.
“The most extravagant thing I’ve seen was a bar. It was a customer in the drinks business, he had a bar in the main lounge area like some people might have in their home or apartment,” Velupillai says. “But generally speaking the owner is looking for a practical way either to do business, or spend time with friends and family… so they’re looking for the stuff they would find in the home or office; they want to take their lifestyle into the air.
“There’ll be some that will want to get on board the aircraft and immediately continue doing business, whether it’s a discussion with a business partner, catching up on some emails or talking to the office. And then there are others that can use it in both roles, alternatively; perhaps on the weekend they want to take their family to a resort and then it’s perhaps more of a living room, a table around which you can have a convivial meal. So, many differences.”
Emirates Executive’s single aircraft, an A319, was purchased in 2013 to exclusively fly royal family members, dignitaries and businessmen.
“What attracts these clients to our A319 is its configuration,” Emirates Executive head Adnan Kazim says. “It’s a wide-body aircraft which makes it more comfortable.
“We provide private suites similar to the ones you see in First Class, with even more luxurious details. We also have a large multi-functional lounge area on board, making it versatile enough to provide bespoke experiences to both private customers and large groups. This means that we can cater to requirements for both privacy as well as a group setting.
“The suites are complemented by a generous-sized shower spa. A signature element of the Emirates premium experience, it is equipped with a full-height shower, innovations like a floor heating system, decorative serigraphy on mirrors and marble accents, as well as luxury, all-natural skincare products.”
The Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts also has bought into the luxury flying experience by creating its own custom-designed Four Seasons Jet to take wealthy holiday makers who may not have their own plane on small group holidays to its hotels worldwide.
Itineraries include private shows and exclusive access to tourism sites as well as a dedicated chef on board the jet, which includes fine bone china and hand-crafted leather flatbed seats exclusively designed for Four Seasons by Iacobucci, the Italian-based premium airline seat designer.
Susan Helstab, executive vice president marketing, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, says the idea of the jet holiday was “to reimagine the future of luxury hospitality”.
“We started with two Private Jet ‘Around the World’ journeys in 2012, followed by a single trip in 2013 and 2014 and are now up to four trips in 2015 and 2016, with plans to add even more trips in 2017,” Helstab says.
“In terms of onboard luxury, every element of the customised interiors aboard the Four Seasons Private Jet have been completely re-imagined by Four Seasons designers in order to recreate a standard of luxury and comfort.”
Even chartered planes can be individually tailored to suit the client. Gordon says Royal Jet, which flew to more than 250 airports last year, recently decked out a plane to resemble a Starbucks coffee shop.
“We had a young man who’s a fan of Starbucks. Although we couldn’t actually turn the plane into a Starbucks aeroplane, we could add Starbucks interior dressings that gave off an atmosphere of a Starbucks,” he explains.
“They enjoyed it tremendously.”
But Gordon insists there is a serious side to travelling in a private jet.
“I think more than status or ego, it’s probably become a question of privacy and security,” he says. “You wander through the airport and get on a plane and everyone knows ‘oh he’s getting on a plane and going to such and such a place’. I think nowadays with the security situation the way it is… security and privacy probably outweigh everything else.”
James says the ease of using a private airport — “it’s more like a five-star hotel” — also is attractive.
“Our VIP lounge has immigration facilities and allows us to handle aircraft and move VIP passengers very quickly,” he says. “Within one or two minutes you can be on board an aircraft and from pushback to take-off it’s less than 10 minutes.”
Velupillai says about one third of the 150-plus ACJ aircraft in operation globally are in the Middle East. The company’s first plane in the 1980s was used for Abu Dhabi’s presidential flights.
“So this is a very important market for us. It’s the biggest corporate jet market in the world for ACJ and we hope that this new aircraft… will continue to have a good presence in the region and to do even better,” Velupillai says, referring to the launch of the new ACJneo range.
The new planes — the ACJ319neo and ACJ320neo — are based on the company’s well-sold commercial airliner, the A320neo. They include new wingtip ‘Sharklets’, which Velupillai says save 16 percent on fuel by reducing drag. They can also travel further (6,750 nautical miles (nm) compared to 6,000nm), but ACJ’s standout feature is the cabin size, Velupillai says. ACJ planes are taller and wider, allowing for more baggage — a common feature among high net worth individuals.
“Sometimes a billionaire will travel and there will be a car to bring the billionaire [to the airport] and a truck to bring his baggage, so it’s good if you can offer a lot of space in a corporate jet,” Velupillai says. “There’s a trend towards bigger and bigger cabins.
“I flew with a billionaire, his friends and his family in an Airbus corporate jet last year and the comment during and after the flight was that … when you fly with an airline or you charter one of the smaller corporate jets, such as a Gulfstream or a Bombardier, you take your seat and then you pretty much stay in that seat throughout the flight because it’s awkward to move around.
“In the Gulfstream, for example, I can’t stand up [he is 6’2” tall]. More importantly the seats are so close together you have to say, ‘excuse me, excuse me, excuse me’. If you’re travelling with close family that’s not so much of an issue but if you’re travelling with the boss of a company…
“With ACJ, because it’s got such a large cabin, wider, taller, it’s a much more sociable experience. So traditionally the two things that most customers have looked for when they’re flying, whether with the airlines or in a corporate jet, it’s the privacy and comfort. I would say that today there’s more and more of this additional dimension, which is the ability to have a better travel experience, to have a better, more sociable travel experience.”
Velupillai says while the executive jet market was affected by the global financial crisis, similar to any industry that relies on discretionary spending, the impact was minimal.
“At the top end of the market, we’ve been relatively less affected,” he says. “The billionaire can, of course, always buy. You’re a billionaire, you lose half your fortune, you can still buy. But, like you and I, [during the credit crunch] they [had] less of a mind set to buy they [were] being more prudent.
“The two new aircraft we’ve announced this month will help to stimulate interest. The Middle East has remained consistently strong, we would expect it to continue to do so. Other parts of the world, I would say cautiously optimistic.”
But while most of the industry is soaring, Canadian executive jet manufacturer Bombardier announced last month it would cut 1,750 jobs because of waning sales demand. It was on top of another 400 jobs axed in Northern Ireland eight months earlier.
The company reported first-quarter profits were down 13 percent on 2014. Business jets are Bombardier’s net earners for its aerospace division (it also makes trains), but there have been only 19 orders so far in 2015, half the figure at the same point in 2014.
However, Bombardier’s woes do not reflect the broader industry, with its smaller Global 5000 and Global 6000 planes — luxurious high-speed 12-seaters — mostly sought by buyers in China, Latin America and Russia, all of which have experienced economic contractions in the past year.
For the rest of the industry, business is flying sky high. “It’s definitely on an upward trend for us,” James says. “Especially with the fuel prices so low — operators are passing on those savings to clients — so for sure you’re going to see the charter market pick up.
“There’s increased competition as well. Operators are taking on new aircraft… and some European operators are coming down here offering aircraft availability. All that is having an effect on the market, so you’re going to see not a price war but definitely good offers out there.”
That price competition may still not be enough for some, however.
Bringing luxury to the elite
The growth in private aviation in the region has boosted the profits not only of aircraft manufacturers and airports, but has also seen smaller companies set up specifically to cater to well-heeled travellers. One of those is Dubai-based Dining High, an “executive aviation catering and concierge” firm that was launched just over a year ago.
The firm is one of only two companies — the other is Emirates Group subsidiary Emirates Executive — to have won approval for airside access at Dubai International Airport, and delivers services as varied as personal shopping, laundry, dishwashing and flowers directly to VVIP clients on their private jets.
“We get a lot of requests for rare and exquisite items, perfumes, chocolates and caviar, however it’s not the items that we find peculiar, but the timeframes in which they are needed,” says Kerry Quin, a director at Dining High. “We often deal with executive cabin crew who only find out that their aircraft is departing six hours before take-off. When they call us with urgent requests (24/7), it’s a matter of being all hands on deck to pull their requests together.”
As well as delivering freshly pressed suits and crisply folded newspapers, the service even extends to providing customers’ favourite meals from local restaurants — such as Nobu’s famous miso-marinated black cod. At the moment, Dining High is working primarily with three main suppliers — the Movenpick, Nobu and JW Marriott — but the list is constantly growing.
“Our clients are brand aware and expect a very high level of quality so the majority of our orders require our team of chefs and personal shoppers to visit any number of restaurants and retailers to co-ordinate each bespoke order,” Quin adds.
“It’s not just a matter of picking up takeaways from a restaurant. Each order needs to be carefully cooked, flavoured, blast chilled, packaged, labelled and transported to perfection for reheating on board — and all within a short time frame.”