Battle of the bling wings
THE sign of ultimate luxury used to be whether you turned left when entering an aeroplane. Could you afford the caviar, champagne on tap and fully reclining seats of first class? Today, the real test is whether, like Lewis Hamilton, you can afford the plane itself.
Private jets, once only the preserve of Marvel Comics supervillains or royalty, are becoming ever more popular, as the wealth of the global elite continues to accumulate.
Hamilton, 32, of course, has been accused of avoiding a £3.3million VAT bill by importing his private plane into the Isle of Man from Canada.
But, for many, it was the jet itself that raised eyebrows: a £16.5million red Bombardier Challenger 650 with ten seats, a top speed of 540mph and with his initials embroidered into the black leather upholstery.
In the world of private jets, however, where on-board parking for your Rolls-Royce is a possibility, this is positively modest. True, you can pick up a second-hand Cessna for less than £100,000, but that won’t cut the mustard at the Dubai Grand Prix or Providenciales Airport on the Turks and Caicos Islands.
To really impress your fellow plutocrats, you need at least a Gulfstream G650, or ideally, your own Boeing 737, fitted out with enough gold leaf for Croesus himself to feel at home. The plane will cost you about £60million – and that’s before you fit it out.
Take the Airbus A340 bought by a member of a Middle Eastern royal family and fitted out by designer Celia Sawyer. She won’t name the family but she did describe ‘a spectacular gold living room, with a runway down the middle to the bar, flanked by gold sofas, with the best leather. It was a lot of fun to do’.
FITTING out a jet that in normal circumstances can fit 377 passengers cost a stratospheric £30 million, included fixtures, fittings and labour – and her fee, of course. She says people with that amount to spend invariably want gold, marble and leather –and plenty of gimmicks. ‘It can all get a bit James Bond,’ she agrees.
Roman Abramovich supposedly had a missile system installed on his Boeing 767-33A, nicknamed The Bandit. The Sultan of Brunei had gold sinks in his plane and Donald Trump, never knowingly understated, insisted the seat buckles on ‘Trump One’ were plated in 24-carat gold. Sawyer continues: ‘I’ve been asked to put in a bowling alley. I laughed and said No. But spas are very common, with a beauty therapist on board, a massage table, sinks.’
Christopher Mbanefo, of Yasava Solutions, a Swiss-based firm which specialises in fitting out jets, says people who can afford a Gulfstream, will invariably travel with plenty of staff. So creating space is essential – or at least the illusion of it. ‘What you don’t want is the security staff in the sitting room with the client.’ In his view, too many private jets are ‘no better than premium economy’ – packed with chairs that don’t even have the space to recline properly.
Those that can’t afford to buy and run their own aircraft (it costs at least £500,000 a year to keep a private jet airborne with crew and maintenance) can hire one. PrivateFly is the Uber of private jets, allowing wealthy individuals to charter their own planes. Its most popular route is London to Ibiza in an eight-seater Cessna Citation XLS, which will cost you £12,300 (one way) for the use of the whole aircraft.
Most oligarchs and oil sheiks want to do it the traditional way, of course – and own the plane outright. And the sign you’ve really made it? According to Celia Sawyer, nothing more complicated than an onboard bath.
‘It’s the biggest challenge. It’s extremely hard to do,’ she says. ‘Where does the water get stored and where does it go afterwards?’ The answer is into the cargo bay, usually.
She says those with a spare £50 million tend to believe more is more. ‘I’ve seen a fake fireplace before. It’s a bit naff, though, I think.’ The one thing money can’t buy is taste.