Pimp my plane
Corporations and the super-rich spend millions to turn private jets into palaces with everything from gold-plated plumbing to antiques
Forget first class.
If you think spending a few hundred dollars for a worn-out leather seat, bottled water, and a few extra inches of legroom is luxury, then you don't know what luxury is.
Try sinking $40 million into a private aircraft, and then spending another $10 million to $30 million for plush carpets, rare woods, intricate entertainment systems, and palatial bedrooms to outfit it before it ever rolls down a runway.
Welcome to the real mile-high club, where only the wealthy can afford the cover charge.
Like a teenager shelling every penny to soup up his first set of wheels, corporations and the super-rich are sparing no expense to make their private jets every bit as luxurious as the homes, hotels, and offices they are accustomed to. And the demand has fueled the growth of an exclusive group of ''completion centers" -- airborne versions of the custom car and motorcycle shops that are featured in hit TV shows like ''Pimp My Ride" -- that are reinventing what it means to fly private.
''You're really trying to turn it into your home," said Flo Ciobotaru, president of Aircraft Industry Management Solutions International Inc., a Montreal company that specializes in custom private jet interiors. ''If you're going to sit in it for 12 hours or 14 hours, you want to be comfortable."
Considering the airborne cattle cars in which most people fly, to describe Ciobotaru's work as comfortable is a huge understatement. Today's top-of-the-line jets feature multiple kitchens, bedrooms, lavatories, and office suites; they are filled with accoutrements that range from gold-plated plumbing and light fixtures to state-of-the-art digital entertainment systems and antique furniture, according to the companies that build them.
To top it off, the planes are almost always staffed with personal assistants and chefs, not to mention the regular flight crew, Ciobotaru said.
Inspired by the same pursuit of comfort, Boeing has recently undertaken a ''Skyhome Project" in which it is encouraging buyers of its 737-series Boeing Business Jet to upgrade their interiors with the accoutrements of an executive's pad.
But while most of these companies happily discuss their handiwork in broad terms, they're careful to skip over details about the planes and their owners.
Edesé Doret Industrial Design Inc., a New York jet and yacht design company, estimates that about 60 percent of its clients are Fortune 500 companies, said Edesé A. Doret Jr., the company's president and founder.
The rest, he said, are heads of state.
The company's latest project is a customized version of the Airbus A380, the largest commercial aircraft in the world. Most airlines that have ordered the new plane are expected to configure the plane to carry about 500 passengers, but one Doret is working on is being fitted with three galleys, a master bedroom, master bathroom with a Jacuzzi and shower, two dining areas, and spiral staircases. The kicker: a fabricated desert oasis, complete with floor pillows, low tables and a mosaic of the Sahara on the walls.
He wouldn't disclose the owner.
Doret said most clients insist that he sign a confidentiality agreement. The secrecy is for security reasons, not because clients are worried about public or employee perceptions of their planes' extravagance.
Still, he conceded that some clients have more personal reasons for discretion.
''Sometimes, depending on the customer, there's a lot of politics involved. One prince may not want to show off his father by having a larger plane than he," Doret said.
Security and privacy aren't the only considerations. Companies outfitting souped-up planes have to satisfy the whims of clients who want air palaces, while at the same time watching the plane's weight and abiding by strict government rules that dictate what a jet can safely contain.
Designing a custom jet interior can take up to three months, a process that involves selecting materials, designing the jet's entertainment center, and calculating the plane's weight with all the new equipment installed. A consultation with the Federal Aviation Administration is also routine, said Wesley Morris, interiors manager at PATS Aircraft LLC in Georgetown, Del.
An interior installation can take another 10 months and cost between $10 million and $30 million, Morris said. That's on top of the $40 million price tag that a large jet like a Boeing 737 can carry off the assembly line. Among common luxuries travelers want: plasma screen TVs and ''touch panels" at every seat that control the entertainment and climate systems at the touch of a finger.
''Everyone wants the latest and greatest," he said.
That goes for amenities that can't be installed, too. Michael Fahn, an account executive in the Boston office of Blue Star Jets, an aviation charter service, said his job is to play concierge to clients as much as it is to charter travel.
In addition to requesting planes with plush seats and $200,000 satellite TV systems, Fahn said his clients often want specialized menus of fresh lobster, crab legs, and fine wines.
Others won't take off without a manicurist or stylist onboard, he said, a perk that can come at a cost of about $100 an hour, plus the cost of flying the personal attendant back home.
''You can't put a value on that. To not have to make another stop, just have that stuff done while you're on the plane and go, that's invaluable," Fahn said.
Keith Reed can be reached at email@example.com.