"Confidentiality is key in this industry," says Ava, a flight attendant who made the transition from first class to private jets in 2019. "We try to protect our clients' personal lives." Trying to get a peek behind the curtain at the antics of the rich and famous can be tricky, precisely for this reason – part of the price these customers pay is for discretion.
Nevertheless, Ava is willing to share a few secrets, if not name any names. The first, which isn't all that secret, is that business is booming for private jet companies, despite a slow start at the beginning of the pandemic. "I didn't fly for pretty much all of March and April 2020," she reminisced. "I think in those initial months, everyone was really freaked out and no one knew the severity of this thing. A lot of the airports were closed, there weren't the people that we needed to get the aircraft on the runway, there were a lot of logistical issues.
"But as soon as I started flying at the end of May, it really kicked off because everyone who would normally fly first or business class were willing to put up more money to travel on a private jet. I really loved that – it's much more fun to travel with people who've not been on a jet before, than the people who are used to it and don't even notice."
How to spot a newbie private jetter? Unsurprisingly, excitement is a giveaway. "They come early and take lots of photos. They want to take a photo with the crew, a photo in front of the airplane. They're usually going to make a party out of it, drink a lot, and really want to make the most of the flight, whereas someone who flies with us a lot, and who is a familiar face, they'll barely ask for anything at all. They're just trying to get from A to B."
What is surprising, however, is that even private jet passengers aren't usually exempt from wearing a mask. "I always wear gloves and a mask throughout the entire flight," said Ava, "and a month or two ago it was made mandatory for passengers to wear a mask too." Whether they actually follow the rules is another matter. "I've noticed that some passengers comply, but many take theirs off as soon as I close the galley door. And then as soon as they realise I'm not going to say anything, they leave it off.
"It's tricky because they pay so much money to fly on this jet, so that they can be comfortable. I know I'm not necessarily at risk, but sometimes I worry about the pilots, because they're much older. The thing is, a lot of our pilots are very conservative and the kind of guys who don't believe a mask actually works. So I feel like they don't care at all. Passengers have asked me to remove my mask, though, and that made me pretty uncomfortable."
Wealth doesn't necessarily protect you from lockdown stresses, says Ava. "I have heard a lot of complaints about the pandemic in general, and people frustrated with the situation – even though they're on a private jet, as soon as they go out into the world they have to deal with these things."
It's not just celebrities; Ava sees a lot of families on board, particularly during the last few months. "Mum, dad, kids and the dog – there's a lot of that. Before the pandemic we also got a lot of solo businessmen and women. But because a lot of meetings are happening online at the moment, there's been a big decrease in that. Now it's mainly families going on holiday."
Family dynamics can be interesting: "A lot of the time these people bring a nanny with them and the kids interact more with them than with their parents. These nannies are always amazing people – they really keep the kids under control and well behaved."
Even flying private, children are still how you'd expect. "Kids are always excited to be on the plane, no matter how many times they've flown. They're always looking out the window and will want to meet the pilots."
Ava does see high-profile people sometimes but "it happens quite rarely, because a lot of celebrities can't actually afford it" – a point which flies in the face of the perceptions of the 'celebrity lifestyle'.
"They usually only fly private if they're on publicity or if they're on tour. It's very rare that they take it on their own dime." Tech execs are far more likely to have the spare cash, she says. "These families that we're flying, the mother or the father either comes from money or is the CEO of a company."
Flyers looking to party in the sky might have to manage their expectations, too – stewards can't allow anything too Wolf of Wall Street to happen. But stag and hen parties do happen every so often. "Our planes have speakers, so they like to blast music. They can be fun."
Ava recalls the most recent one: "It was clearly their first time on a private jet and it was just round after round after round. Margaritas, martinis, shots, beers. Just constant drinking over a five-hour flight. It can be difficult to manage because you want to make sure they're staying orderly, because you're 40,000 feet in the air and you need to make sure everyone is safe.
"We've definitely had passengers who've wanted champagne on ice the moment they've boarded, but I've never had a situation that's gotten completely out of control. There are ways of ensuring that – you start delaying getting drinks out if you still have two hours left on a flights. I'll also ask the pilots to turn the seatbelts signs on, and tell the clients there's turbulence. They'll immediately start settling down then."
While boozing is common, rudeness thankfully isn't, at least not with the private jet lot. "I feel like you have to deal with a lot more of that on commercial flights," explained Ava. "You notice in business and first that passengers try and outdo each other. One passenger would want more attention from the flight attendant than all the other passengers and would ask for more things, for instance. But because it's a private jet there isn't that sense of competition and they know you're there to serve them."
That's not to say it doesn't happen. "There are some passengers who have a reputation for being a little difficult. It can be a particular problem with flight attendants who don't hold their ground and start over-apologising or bowing down to these customers. There are people who will take advantage of that and I've seen things escalate from there. There are some extremely wealthy, powerful people who don't like someone else being in control of the situation, but if they realise that you're not going to crack, they'll back down. I've had people test me for sure."
Crazy requests also aren't that common. "There are some people who are very specific and have a list of needs. Sometimes it can be weird random stuff, like a certain type of water, or everything on board has to be hypoallergenic. But if a request is made, we go out of our way to make it happen, no judgement. If they like tabloid magazines, or a certain type of chocolate, we'll get them onboard."
As for wild stories? Ava doesn't have many herself, but says: "There are people who have sex on the plane all the time. It's a small space, even though there are doors, and everyone can hear what's going on. But people who do that usually don't give a s*** about what anyone thinks of them. It's actually my responsibility to clean the plane – I clean the toilet, disinfect everything, and vacuum after the flight – but if that happens we get professional cleaners in. Though if it really came down to it I guess I would just put on a hazmat suit and do it."
Though it's not all glamour, there are plenty of freebies. "There's always really good leftover food and leftover bottles of champagne."
Huge tips are less typical. "The most I've ever received was about £150 ($A269), and it was for a flight that I barely worked on. I'll do a flight that's three hours where all I've done is check in on passengers a few times and serve a coffee, and get a big tip. Then I'll have a crazy five-hour flight and will be serving drinks the entire time and not get anything. You learn to not expect anything."
Some passengers do get a better level of service than others, however. "Technically most private jets are shared, but there are different levels of passengers. For us, those who are the most frequent flyers, or who have paid for the most premium service, are going to get the full range of products, whereas someone who has just chartered the flight for the day is going to get a more limited service.
"If it's someone who is very high profile we'll have a brief on them, and get a list of what they like to eat, how they like their coffee, what temperature they like the cabin to be. I've seen a brief of someone who doesn't like to make eye contact, for example."
There's also a huge range of private jet styles, from tiny and dated to massive, repurposed commercial outfits. "The other day I saw a huge Boeing 777 land and only four people got off. They looked like businesspeople. I also saw Drake's plane the other day – he also has one of these massive jets."
Is there more appeal in a massive plane? "Well, Drake, for example, he'd be doing it as a publicity stunt. Otherwise, it's just people who want to show how much money they have. We'll fly billionaires who are totally fine with being on our smaller jets. I flew someone who was a billionaire, and they came in wearing jeans and a T-shirt. You'd never have imagined this person was worth that much money until you Googled them."
The Telegraph, London