How rock stars fly: inside the top private jets

The world of private jets conjures up visions of rock stars and groupies flying high and cavorting riotously in their whirlpool tubs, smoking cigars at 35,000 feet, and of stretch limos waiting in exotic ports.

But the reality is that the rapidly growing uptake in private jets is strictly business, according to the aircraft manufacturers at Avalon, which at this year's airshow has the largest array of corporate jets assembled in the event's history.

There are about 100 executive jets in operation in Australia, up from just a handful a decade ago. And the company salesmen say, business is on the rise.

Away from the fancy aero company chalets, one young engineer said, pointing to his smartphone, a private jet these days is really a multi-million-dollar Blackberry — a business tool for communicating with clients.

Take Chris Dunphy, who owns a shipping company.

Stuck for hours at Darwin airport with missed flight connections on a commercial airline, sandwiched in a hot and sweaty crowd, and utterly exasperated, he thought there must be a better way to do business.

There was. He's just bought a $4 million (according to the list price) Embraer Phenom 100 twin-engined jet, which he can use to see customers anytime, anywhere.

It's made by the Brazilian firm that supplies Virgin Blue in Australia with the smaller jets in its fleet, the Embraer 190 and 170.

The Phenom 100 might be the tiddler of the range but it's anything but meagre.


Inside, you could mistake it for a luxury car, like a BMW 7-series. That's no coincidence.

The interior, which in this chosen layout seats four passengers, has comfortable cream leather seats facing each other divided by a sunken aisle, and is designed by BMW DesignworksUSA, a division of the luxury German carmaker that also designs mega-dollar yachts and their interiors.

It has an amenities bar, a separate toilet, plenty of leg room, large windows and tabletops that slide out from the side shelf.

And its performance credentials are impressive. It can fly 2100km, or the distance from Melbourne to Noosa, Sydney to Cairns or Brisbane to Noumea on a tankful. Its pressurised cabin means it can fly as high as a commercial airliner; it's rated to 41,000 feet and its dual Pratt and Whitney engines can push the craft to cruise at 722km/h.

And with four passengers aboard, it only takes about 50 comparable flights on an commercial airliner before it's more economical to fly privately, Mr Dunphy says.

And there's no airport security queues, grumpy airline staff or inconvenient flight schedules. His plane is maintained by a third party specialist company that also supplies the pilots. Mr Dunphy is seeking partners to join in co-ownership of the aircraft.

While Embraer makes a bigger $8 million Phenom 300 (it'll do Melbourne to Perth, Papua New Guinea or New Zealand at 839 km/h) and seats up to 11, it has even larger models: the Legacy 450, 500, 600 (about $30 million-plus), 650 and 1000 (at $50 million) — which seats up to 19 and will do Sydney-Singapore in one go.

But the firm doesn't have the market to itself, indeed it is the newest entrant to the local market.

And the main players, including US-firm General Dynamics' Gulfstream and Canada's Bombardier (which also makes Learjets), are optimistic about future growth, after the flattening effects of the 2008 global financial crisis, as businesses realise the return on investment speedy private air transport provides.

"Companies are seeing a need to go outside their region to grow their business," says Gulfstream's vice president of international sales, Roger Sperry.

"Ten years ago, if there was a corporate plane the top individuals rode on it.

"Today I'm seeing many companies where middle-management is riding on the plane; they will have a meeting on the way and do their business.

"Instead of being gone four days on the airlines, they're going two days on the business jet," he says.

The Gulfstream range starts with a $15 million G150 and spears all the way to a $64.5 million G650 — the fastest business jet, at 956km/h, that's undergoing certification this year.

All sport leather-lined and plushly carpeted interiors with gloss wood bars and some have sofas that convert to flat beds. And of course everything can be customised to suit.

"Customers pick out the wood, the carpet, the colours, the plating, the china, the silverware," Mr Sperry says.

And then there's (reputedly) Oprah's jet of choice, the Bombardier.

"We have customers that are essentially large corporations. Look at the top of the BRW [rich] list and you will see all our customers," said Bombardier's southeast Asia Pacific sales director Christophe Chicandard, whose jets hold a third of the Australian business jet market, and a quarter in the Asia Pacific region.

"We have about 15 Globals in service in Australia and two in New Zealand. Ten years ago there was nothing," he said.

It's range starts with the Learjet 40XR for seven passengers that'll fly above the weather at 51,000 feet at speeds up to 860km/h and has a range of more than 3100 kilometres, or there's a larger $10 million 60XR.

Its big excitement for 2013 is the market's first wholly-composite executive jet, the Learjet 85, made of advanced carbon fibre and resin composites, like Boeing's forthcoming 787 Dreamliner.

Then there's its Challenger series, ranging from the 300 eight-seat model (from $24 million) to the 850 14-seater (from $32 million). Beyond that, there's a Global series priced around $45-$65 million depending on the model and configuration.

And customers increasingly want efficiency, connectivity and comfort, Mr Chicandard says.

"All our principle owners - their main currency isn't dollars, yen or euro — it's time. They want to gain as much time as possible.

"There's growing need for connectivity, to have broadband internet on the plane, to remain connected in flight and on the ground. We have equipment on the plane, a LAN computer to store your data and projections on screens to customers or business partners.

"We also see more demand for comfort, because as you improve the [flying] range...the comfort level requirements increase; more comfortable seats, more amenities, videos, CDs, plug-ins for iPods and even things like showers — it's an option," he says.

After being having been given a glimpse into the way the other half flies, it's depressing to think about getting back into a cramped, crumb-laden economy commercial airline seat, with a child kicking the backrest from behind, and the boofhead in front reclining into the little space you have left.

An executive who frequently flies privately said sometimes his company books him on commercial airlines, an prospect he now describes as "difficult".

Surely an enterprising airline could find a way run a small fleet of these pocket rockets for the people willing to pay a little more, like a gold-class theatrette experience in the skies?

We could even make do without the hot tub, rockers and cigars.