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October 22, 2004 12:43 pm

Fly me to the Alps

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A private jet is the ultimate status symbol. "There isn't a person in the world who wouldn't want one." So says Mark Booth, chief executive of NetJets Europe. The reason we don't all own one, is, of course, the price. But there's nothing to stop you owning part of one.

Apart from globe-trotting businessmen wanting to visit two or three cities in a day and Concorde nostalgics, the keen, well-heeled skier is another obvious candidate. If you're flying to the snow from the UK, the one thing that can detract from the joys of a winter holiday is the tortuous preamble, in the morning scrum, to getting airborne. So what could be easier than simply climbing, James Bond-like, aboard your own executive jet?

Jeffersons, a London tour operator, uses private jets to take clients to luxury ski holidays in the Alps. And heliski tour operator James Orr is offering private-jet transfers from Vancouver to Peace Reach Adventures, which gives you access to more than 3,000 sq miles of powder skiing in a remote part of Canada's northern Rockies.

Alternatively you could buy a fraction of a jet from NetJets, globally the largest operator and buyer of private jets.

NetJets, with operations bases in Lisbon, Columbus, Ohio, and Jeddah, dislikes time-share comparisons, preferring phrases such as "fractional aircraft ownership". The fractional share sizes are linked with the number of hours your jet will be available to you. The deal is that for a specific number of hours each year, you have exclusive use of a Gulfstream, Falcon, Hawker or Citation jet. The average age of the aircraft is less two years old.

In the US, with its global HQ at Woodbridge, New Jersey, NetJets has gradually acquired a fleet of 500 planes and 4,000 owners. Its European operation, based in London, has 40 jets and getting on for 300 owners.

The most you can buy of any aircraft is half a jet: 50 per cent of a Falcon would cost you about £7m, entitling you to 400 "annual occupied hours" or 440 hours for owners who only use one specific airport base. But you can start with any fraction you want, from a minimum share entitling you to 25 hours per year.

NetJets owners routinely fly into local airports (accessible because small jets don't need such long runways) close to places like Courchevel (1 hour and 10 minutes from Chambry), St. Moritz (ten minutes or so from Samedan), Lech (just over an hour from Altenrhein) and Cortina d'Ampezzo (a little over two hours from Innsbruck). Owners are collected and chauffeur-driven to the slopes.

NetJets provide flight attendants on their large-cabin jets. (There are none on Jeffersons flights, so you can pig out without embarrassment on the hamper.)

You won't need a ticket, and if you drive yourself, you can virtually drive to the aircraft, and park your car there for nothing. You can arrive as little as 15 minutes before take-off. And if you're delayed a little, your plane will, of course, wait for you.

But safety is by far the most important consideration.

"Planes and mountains don't always get on very well" says David Carlisle, director of technical and strategic support for NetJets' European Operations in Lisbon. It's a consideration which pre-occupies executive vice-president Kevin Russell at NetJets' global HQ in Woodbridge, New Jersey

"NetJets has invested in five flight simulators at our operations HQ in Columbus, Ohio, each costing between $18m and $20m," says Russell, a keen skier himself. "We can simulate every airport in the world, along with the worst possible weather conditions.

We can get our pilots to familiarise themselves with any airport and conditions over and over and over again. We train our pilots for 23 days of the year, compared with the seven to 11 days commercial airline pilots get. We use those flight simulators for 22 hours a day, 360 days a year."

Says Carlisle: "Often we have to make flights to airports in mountainous terrain when it's cloudy and the terrain is obscured. In this case the airports need to have an instrument landing system. Some - St. Moritz (Samedan) is a prime example - don't have instrument-landing systems or beacons to help guide the aircraft in cloud. Therefore the pilots need to have visual reference with any terrain or obstacles. This applies to departing flights as well.

"An airline would of course never ring a passenger the day before a flight to advise there may be a change of plan or a delay because of the weather, NetJets regularly call owners the day before a flight to recommend alternatives or back-up plans when required," he says.

Globally, NetJets plan and dispatch more than 250,000 flights to 140 countries each year. Last year in Europe, 87 NetJets owners landed a total of 223 times in seven different types of executive jets at airports close to the mountains. Many brought their own skis. (Those with the now old fashioned, longer skis proved to be a little more difficult to accommodate than those carrying shorter "carving" skis.)

Descent International, Britain's most upmarket chalet operator, recognising the growing need for the added secu rity and flexibility that private jet travel can bring, has purchased a NetJets card, giving any of its guests the full benefits of "membership" without having to have actually own the card themselves.

Existing NetJet cardholders can also benefit, as Descent International will give any member who books a holiday with them a voucher worth £1,500 to be used against any resort expenditure."

Peace Reach's heliskiing guests can access the company's wilderness location in less time than it takes to get to Whistler from Vancouver International Airport. A privately chartered Lear jet can reach Hudson's Hope in one hour. From here a 10-minute helicopter flight has guests installed in Peace Reach's lodge overlooking Williston Lake.

"For about $750 per person, a private jet is the perfect way to reach the lodge," says James Orr. "Not having to fit in with airline schedules means not only minimising travel time, but also maximising the time skiing."

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