Saturday, February 03, 2007

Here come the private widebodies

The superrich are increasingly buying widebody planes, remodeled to their own preferences for luxurious living aloft

Think a luxuriously appointed private Gulfstream or Lear jet is the ultimate way to fly? Not any more. Increasingly, the world's superrich are buying big, big planes -- the same kind of widebody Boeing (BA) and Airbus jets the airlines use on long-haul flights -- and outfitting them with everything from his-and-hers bathrooms to onboard movie theaters. "Private jets are becoming flying apartments," says Jacques Pierrejean, a French designer who specializes in aircraft interiors.

These airborne penthouses cost plenty. New widebodies, such as the Airbus A340 and the Boeing 777, list for well over $100 million. Even the oldest secondhand widebodies cost at least $10 million. A customized interior adds $25 million to $30 million, says Ed├ęse Doret, a New York-based designer who has outfitted several big planes for private use.

With price tags like that, it's no surprise that only five or six such planes are sold each year. But that's enough to provide a steady business for Pierrejean, Doret, and a handful of other aircraft-interior specialists. Their client lists -- held in strictest confidentiality -- range from Middle Eastern sheikhs and Russian oil barons to Western corporate moguls and Hollywood stars.

Several trends are fueling the push for bigger planes. Because of increased concern over security, especially post-September 11, some businesspeople now use their aircraft as a base of operations on overseas business trips. Rather than going to a hotel or office after landing, they just stay onboard.

The planes are outfitted with computers, fax machines, and high-speed Internet connections, so work can continue uninterrupted. Guests are invited to business meetings in onboard conference rooms, which a widebody plane can accommodate far more easily than a smaller aircraft.

Time-pressed executives and celebrities also like to bring spouses and friends along when they travel. The widebodies have space for several guest rooms, as well as entertainment facilities such as big-screen TVs and video-game consoles. Not all the fun is family-style: New York designer Doret says one of his clients wants to install a pole in his plane so he can watch strippers dance.

Another motivation, it seems, is one-upmanship. "As soon as someone gets one of these [big planes], others want it," Doret says. So it's not surprising that some clients are already eyeing the biggest plane of all: the doubledecker Airbus A380, scheduled to enter service late next year and designed to carry up to 800 passengers.

Pierrejean has done preliminary designs for a wealthy Middle Eastern client who wants to buy an A380 for personal use. Among the amenities he has requested are an onboard movie theater, a prayer room, and a discotheque. With features like that, why bother landing?

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