LUXURYCULTURE.COM - The Sky's the Limit


Upping the ante in style, first-class flight and private charters take air flight to luxurious new heights.

There was a time when the well-traveled executive exulted in the benefits of business class, but as issues of security hamper commercial flights, the travel-savvy are taking to the skies in the privacy of their own jet. Aviation specialists such as NetJets, PrivatAir and Skyjet have never been busier. Programs such as jet-card membership, which allows passengers to reserve blocks of flying time for a flat hourly rate; fractional ownership; and private aircraft management at competitive rates are making private air flight more accessible than ever. The obvious attraction of tailor-made flight is, of course, time. "Our service allows customers to jet off to thousands of airports around the world at a moment's notice. By avoiding the hassle and delays of scheduled airlines, our clients can experience the most exceptional service, while saving time and stress. At first it seems we are selling luxury, but what we're really selling is time," says NetJets Europe's Chairman and CEO, Mark Booth. Direct access to out-of-the-way locations can cut travel time drastically, particularly for short-hop trips to remote locations.

Today it is no longer just time-pressed CEOs and high-flying dealmakers who are taking advantage of the benefits of private flight. According to Richard Koe, Vice President of Europe & Middle East for PrivatAir, "The demographic has shifted across the industry, from the super-rich, plutocrats and royalty, to a broader market of business users and time-pressed wealthy individuals. There's also a noticeable influx of 'new wealth' from fast-developing markets in Russia and Asia." The ancillary benefits – concierge services, fast-track security clearance and advance luggage pick-up services – add to the appeal, particularly for affluent young families.

Bridging the gap between private and commercial, aircraft charter companies such as PrivatAir are providing business-class-only flights on popular executive routes such as Chicago to Dusseldorf and New York to Zurich, offering additional support for heavily used trade routes.

Competition from these high-flying fleets has forced commercial airlines to fight back, offering exceptional interiors, time-saving supplementary services, fast-track security clearance and luxury lounges to while away the time, even if that time is substantially shorter than in economy class. The multi-award-winning Emirates Airlines recently swept the polls for its first-class facilities, such as fully-enclosed first-class suites, while Singapore Airlines flaunts its fashion credentials with soft furnishings and table linen from Givenchy, along with first-class toiletry kits by Salvatore Ferragamo. Virgin Atlantic recently introduced its flagship Upper Class lounge, the Clubhouse at London's Heathrow Airport. The £11m complex allows premier passengers to unwind in a luxury spa and salon before takeoff.

Can such swanky sanctuaries compensate for the thrill and pleasure of traveling in the luxury of your own custom-made environment? For the privileged possessor of a personal jet, it is no mere mode of transport, but a lifestyle extension. As Nick Talbot, director of the UK product design and design consultants Seymourpowell, explains, plane interiors have become as important as home interiors. While CEOs still favor corporate colors, young entrepreneurs are looking beyond that. "Across the globe," Talbot says, "we are seeing more young people in a position to own their own aircraft. They are more design-conscious, because they are less likely to spend time in a boardroom, and they are hoovering up all these design influences, whereas if the head of a corporation were buying a jet, it would probably look more like their office. Younger clients are more influenced by the design and architecture of places that they've visited. However, it has to be said that the advantage of muted interiors is that it is easier to sell the craft. Flamboyant interiors are not to everyone's taste, and a refit is costly." Hi-tech gadgetry also features on top of the list of must-haves; from networked office systems to ambient cabin lighting, not to mention the all-important games systems for down time.

For those seeking size, the only way to travel is by jumbo jet. However, although these commercial-sized crafts are spacious enough to carry a hefty entourage, for private charter operators like Privatair, the emphasis is on space over sheer number of seats. The company recently sent its first luxury Boeing 767 up into the skies with a mere 65 places, while the premium-class commercial airline EOS prides itself on its fleet of 757s, which carry only 48 passengers on twice-daily flights from London to New York. Boasting an impressive 21sq ft of space for each traveler, with a 6'6" fully horizontal bed, the service is a godsend for regular redeye commuters.

For the ultra-wealthy, passenger numbers are no consideration. Surplus seating is replaced with bedroom suites, bars, even games areas. As security plays a major factor in the shift to private travel, large jets such as Netjets' Boeing Business Jet have become flying home/offices for up to 18 passengers, complete with two bedrooms, a conference room and a dining room, allowing business travelers to work uninterrupted on long-haul flights. High-flying and adored, welcome to a new class of air travel: comfort class.

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