Private Jets Become Flying Palaces

Private jet bragging rights among the ultra rich have just taken a quantum leap to a lavish flying palace that is being created inside the biggest passenger plane ever built.

The plane is the Airbus super jumbo A-380, the double-decker that can carry up to 800 passengers if it is configured with only the cheap seats. There will be just 82 passengers in the private version.

Airbus will not identify the individual who ordered the $300 million plane. That price, incidentally, is only the starting point.

Edése Doret, a jet interior expert who is designing the A-380 for the customer will say only that he is a "Head of state." The New York-based Doret, who has customized jets since 1988, says his work will add another $150 million to the total cost.

The price tag includes the cost of modifying the fuselage for an "Air Force One Stairway" which allows passengers and crew to enter the plane directly from the ground through the cargo bay. That stairway leads to a lower spiral staircase which takes passengers to the entry lounge. Another, wide sweeping staircase leads passengers to the grand lounge on the upper deck.

Doret says the buyer's family and friends will occupy the upper deck, which by itself is 147 feet, five inches long, longer than the length of the Wright Brothers' first flight. In addition to the grand lounge it will have a 600-square-foot master suite and other bedrooms, a Jacuzzi, a family dining room, a game room and offices. All of it says Doret "Will be in a desert-like environment."

That environment says Doret will be created by curtains that resemble Arab tents and a mosaic built with fiber optics that will look like shifting desert sands.

The lower deck has an additional dining room and work space as well as seats for the crew and staff.

This is Doret's biggest job which will take about a year and a half, but he is working on a number of projects that are for the super rich. "There are a lot of billionaires out there," he says. And above and beyond the cost of buying and customizing the A-380, its owner will face operating costs of about $25,000 an hour, including the crew of 16.

Airbus executives say this extravagance makes sense for the very rich. They live in their own world and can use the plane as a traveling office or to entertain even on the ground.

The cost of $450 million is ten times as much as the cost of a Gulfstream G550, which seats about 14 passengers and can fly 5,800 miles, once considered the height of private jet luxury. But the industry trend is to bigger and bigger long haul aircraft. One reason may be the income produced by sharply higher oil prices in recent years for residents of the Middle East and Russia.

Marc Yahr, an executive at L and L International in Miami, a big private jet business, says "a lot of the people buying are the known knowns but also the unknown knowns." By that he means the very wealthy most people know about the very wealthy most people have never heard of and who don't make a public display of their riches.

Yahr has seen the market move upward from planes like the Gulfstream to the Boeing Business Jet, a modified 737 which costs a mere $75 million, fully loaded with all the optional extras.

Yahr says the hot plane now is Boeing's new 787 Dreamliner designed to carry 210 to 330 passengers in commercial use will have 35 to 40 seats as a private jet.

"There's tons of money out there," says Yahr, "especially in Europe." Those people, says Yahr "Have come out of the woodwork since 9/11, creating surge in the private jet market. It's huge." The main reason there are now 10,000 private jets in the United States, he says, is that "people don't want to deal with waiting."

Lufthansa Technik, a wing of the German airline, has long experience converting commercial planes for private use and recently unveiled some interior designs for the 787, the first deliveries of which are not expected until next year. One image showed a movie theatre, in additional to a luxurious master bedroom with a queen sized bed, all designed by Lufthansa.

List price for a 787 is $150 million, plus the cost of designing and building the interior. And Lufthansa is expanding a jumbo jet hangar in Hamburg to cope with the expected business.

Some of that new business may come from the redesigned 747 called the 747-8 which will have a list price of more than $180 million with an empty interior and the exterior unpainted. There are now about 40 of the original 747s operating as private planes.

How are they used? L and L International's Yahr says casinos in Macao, for example, use them to bring high rollers from the United States. Super wealthy also want their own world where they feel protected. And of course high flying businessmen can write off part of the cost by using them to do deals in far flung places.

The smaller 757, 767 and 777 are favored by the dealmakers. Google co-fonders Larry Page and Sergey Brin bought a used 767 last year. There's always room to grow.

While the jumbos and super jumbos may separate the men from the boys, there are problems. They can only use airports big enough to handle them. That rules out some of the favorite playgrounds for the rich like Aspen, Colorado and several airports in the south of France and in Europe.

But you can always buy a smaller jet to take you from the bigger jet to your final destination.