For those who fly privately, price is often no object. Take, for example, a hedge fund manager who recently hired the Long Island, N.Y.-based Talon Air to fly him and five guests to Las Vegas on a Gulfstream IV.
The party began their four-day trip with a catered meal from the exclusive Japanese restaurant Nobu. They relaxed in reclining leather seats and sped toward Sin City at 570 miles per hour. On the return flight, they again enjoyed a Nobu meal, this one prepared at the Las Vegas restaurant.
The total cost? $86,000, which included a $5,000 bill for catering.
Not all passengers on private planes spend so extravagantly, but the industry is a lucrative one. There are 166 million people who use general aviation annually, which includes private or corporate jets, according to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA). Two-thirds of total general aviation flight time is used for business purposes. The business-jet market has also been steadily growing since the mid-90s, when the North American fleet of jets topped 6,000. There are now more than 10,000 business jets in North America and over 14,000 worldwide, according to Honeywell Aerospace.
Growing demand is due partly to an increasingly globalized world in which sales teams from New York meet clients in India or Russia regularly. The interest in private travel has also correlated with the dismal performances of domestic commercial airlines. Only 80% of flights were on time in November 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, a discouraging statistic for business travelers who need reliable transportation.
Increased market competitiveness has yielded a dizzying array of choices for both luxury and business clients when it comes to flying solo. Pete Bunce, CEO and president of GAMA, says that the spectrum of choices is impressive.
"If you've got business in Japan, you'll want a [plane] with tremendous long capability," Bunce says. "If you're a big person, like a football player, you'll want something that will fit your size. The choices allow virtually anyone to tailor how they want to fly."
Adam Katz, owner and operator of Talon Air, says that he offers clients like Andy Roddick and Pete Sampras the "ultimate in concierge service." On Talon Air, baggage can be shipped from one's home to one's final destination without the client ever touching it. Also onboard are cashmere blankets, crystal and broadband wireless Internet.
"Safe and efficient flying is the basic assumption," Katz says, "but it's our boutique concierge business model that transcends everything else." Like on other luxury charter services, Talon Air pricing varies based on distance, but expect the total bill to climb into the tens of thousands.
Business travelers on the company dime may fly less luxuriously, but they can still enjoy high-end amenities like espresso, satellite radio and television, and even a camera-view of the cockpit dashboard.
Duncan Aviation, a company based in Lincoln, Neb., that specializes in retrofitting older jets, has installed in its jets each of these features and more, including liquid-crystal display screens up to 42 inches and custom dividers for those who desire privacy. Modifications aren't cheap, though. The divider can cost anywhere from $70,000 to $90,000, the espresso machine from $12,000 to $20,000, the TV system $20,000 and wireless Internet $500,000.
Despite the cringe-worthy price tags of these options, they pale in comparison to the original cost of the plane, which can easily start at $10 million.
"In the scheme of things, it's minuscule," says Tracey Boesch, a senior completion sales representative at Duncan Aviation. "If there's a need for a component, it's more than justified. It's simply using the aircraft as a business tool in the most efficient way you can."