Spas on board, London to New York in three hours and the ability to “disappear” in the sky — private aviation is entering an exciting new era, reports Charles Bremner.
On a recent flight, the pilots of a Dassault Falcon 7X faced a technical hitch on their three-engined jet. They raised their voices slightly as they resolved the problem and learned only later that their passengers had shared the stress: The sound level in the Falcon is so low that chatter on the flight deck was clear in the cabin behind them.
Long gone are the early days of VIP aviation when the whine of turbo-jets drowned conversation in cramped aircraft. So says Adam Twidell, founder and CEO of PrivateFly, a British-based charter broker, who tells this tale to illustrate the current Zen-like comfort in high-end private jets worth the investment. Aboard their Cessna Citations, Gulfstreams, Embraers, Bombardiers and Boeings, customers now expect silence, space and light — even in small planes - making private jets the ultimate interior design challenge. “Passengers want to be cool, calm and connected on board private jets,” says Twidell. “Temperature controls and humidity controls are all commanded from iPads. Soundproofing keeps out the noise and there is music and good WiFi throughout the flight, which is important.”
In Wichita, Kansas, where Textron is making a new line of bigger Cessna Citations, it has found that customers sometimes want less silence. “They’re saying, ‘Be careful because when you do things like flush the toilet, you
don’t want to be able to hear everything,’” says Christi Tannahill, vice president for interior design at Textron. “But an airplane that’s too quiet is a nice problem to have.”
Today, aircraft of ever-greater range and efficiency are being produced, from light jets such as Cessna’s Citation M2, Embraer’s Phenom and the all-new HondaJet, to the transoceanic flagships of Gulfstream, Bombardier and Dassault. Planes are lighter, because of the composite materials used in their construction, and safer thanks to ever-more automated flight systems and sharp tech to help pilots. But until a new generation of jets breaks the sound barrier, they aren’t getting any quicker.
A hop from Dubai to New York still takes more than 14 hours in the Gulfstream 650ER, the fastest long-range jet. So the accent is on comfort inside the flying machine. Architects and psychologists have worked with engineers to ensure that the space is so agreeable the occupants forget they are 41,000 feet in the air and might be on board their yacht...or even at home.
For some owners, opulence rules. Those with the ultimate wings, the airliner-sized Boeing Business Jet and Airbus Corporate Jet, sometimes turn them into flying châteaux, equipped with oak libraries, aquariums, flickering fireplaces and a grand piano. “Some of the cabins are extraordinarily beautiful and similar to yachts,” says Twidell. “This is somebody’s absolute pride and joy, so when they’re hosting friends and important guests, they want it to be impressive.”
But for most owners, the goal is comfort and the enhancement of mood, for working and relaxing. That translates into clever use of space and lighting that gives the feel of the changing day. Aircraft manufacturers have turned to art schools and designers to help. Cessna is working with the Rhode Island School of Design on its new generation Latitude, Longitude and Hemisphere jets.
“They’re helping us understand how you make your flight seem like the home environment, whether you’re using the aeroplane for the family vacation or an office or to sleep,” says Tannahill. “The goal is to enable passengers to feel refreshed when they land. Ambient lighting, flat screens and low altitude air pressure all contribute to that. We are working on steam showers and we’re looking at granite and wood flooring, artwork and things that would duplicate our home.” Like all the competition, Cessna is checking out the yachting industry for tips on elegant use of space, she says.
For those willing to spend upward of $150 million, the quest for what the French call “zenitude” can end with a not-so-humble loft. Lufthansa Technik is offering that with Welcome Home, a VIP version of the Airbus A350. The idea is to get away from a box-like layout, says Michael Reichenecker, one of its two architects. “We’re aiming for a loft-like feeling that can be changed by using huge sliding doors.”
Reichenecker’s pride and joy is the roomy spa that occupies the rear section of the aircraft. The wall is decorated with stone, while bamboo wood covers the floor and ceiling. There are workout machines, massage tables and a steam shower. “The idea of the spa is to have moisture in the air. The higher humidity increases your well-being,” says Reichenecker. “Our customers are really looking for quality time that they can spend with their family.” Lufthansa Technik, which has fitted out more than 110 VIP Airbuses and Boeings for clients, says that not everything can be fitted on board. Swimming pools, for instance, are out.
Whether you’re in an aerial superyacht or a modest light jet, peace of mind increasingly includes the need for security. Missile defence systems are largely restricted to government-owned planes, but aircraft manufacturers are working on other technology to make flights more discreet so that your presence in the sky is not signalled to all-comers, who can follow your flight via the Internet.
Christopher Williams-Martin, CEO of EliteJets Group, says that there is mounting demand for flight data to be blocked. “If you’re flying over areas that might have questionable people on the ground, it’s a problem,” he says. “It’s hush-hush, but there’s new technology to prevent people from tracking an aircraft other than on a need-to-know basis.”
A sense of security is also fostered by a good crew, which can involve two sets of pilots for long-range flights. British, German and American pilots are current favourites with international clientele, say flight managers.
With such levels of comfort and security in the sky, the ultimate goal is the supersonic jet. Three projects are under way. Aerion, chaired by Texas billionaire Robert Bass, has already taken orders for its AS2 supersonic private jets. By 2023, these will be whisking up to a dozen passengers from London to New York in less than three hours, the company hopes.
The feeling in the industry is that these “grandchildren” of Concorde will become reality, but given the narrow physical dimensions dictated by the technology, customers may prefer to linger a little longer in the sky in surroundings they know. “Yes, you’re going to be able to get there very quickly,” says Twidell, “but the experience is going to be like being in a small jet, while you could take another two hours to get there and for half the price you could be in a [more roomy] Gulfstream 650.”