Did you bring your PJs? The rise of the private-jet set
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The bright red ball of the sun has long sunk below the horizon as we make our final approach to runway 18 at Chambéry airport, in southeast France. On a moonless night there are not many clues to the locations of all the hazards – the lake in front, formidable mountains beyond the runway and to either side. But looking through the head-up display in the direction of where the map says the airport is, I can see them all picked out in vivid fluorescent green, including the runway itself, computer- rendered with faithful clarity exactly where it should be, long before I can see the lights that mark its approach end.
Even on a cloudless night, the ability of the combined vision system on the Dassault Falcon 8X to knit computer-generated images of ground features together with a wide-spectrum, camera- enhanced actual view is impressive in its ability to show exactly what I need to know.
The $59.3m Dassault Falcon 8X marks a new breed of private jet that might have been designed to meet the needs of the super-rich pandemic traveller. It can carry up to 21, including crew, and has a maximum speed of nine-tenths of the speed of sound. An astonishingly capable aircraft, it can stay aloft for 14 hours and reach Los Angeles from Paris, but also land at demanding airports such as St Tropez’s La Môle, with its short strip and blood-pumping left-right swerve on the final approach.
The capability is enhanced by the dual-HUD system I was flying with. That’s on track for regulatory approval early next year and will mean approval for landing even, in some cases, when the pilots can’t see the runway at all with the naked eye.
Clients for the triple-engined, ultra-long-range 8X are, says Dassault, “Corporations and governments, entrepreneurs and individuals, with the breakdown varying from year to year.” Given the circumstances of new restrictions in recent months, Dassault could find there are increasing numbers of clients buying the plane for private use to fly their families between routes such as London and Cape Town, Paris and Hong Kong or Los Angeles and Beijing.
It has been a curious and volatile time for the private-jet sector. It’s been hard hit, but less so than commercial carriers. Globally, commercial flights were down two-thirds between 1 March and early September compared with the same period last year, according to figures from WingX Advance, the aviation-data company. Flights by private aircraft, meanwhile, were down only a third, and towards the end of that period began to rally, tripling in number since the lowpoint of April. Nevertheless, there’s an anxiety that that uptick won’t be sustained. WingX Advance managing director Richard Koe said recovery trends have begun to fall since mid-September, indicating that “leisure flying is dropping off and there is little corporate or business travel to fill the gap”.
In terms of sales of private craft, however, NetJets, the leading fractional operator of private jets, says enquiries have consistently increased since March. “Travellers are prioritising their health and safety,” says Patrick Gallagher, NetJets president of sales and marketing. “We now have three times the number of new owners as we had by this point last year.”
Gallagher adds: “The increase in new ultra-high-wealth individuals has been outpacing the increase of private-flight activity. This suggests there were a lot of people with the means to fly private who perhaps viewed it as a luxury they didn’t need. Now they are recognising that the ultimate luxury is peace of mind.”
The biggest increase is in personal use. “Normally about half of our owners are travelling either alone or in a group for business,” says Gallagher. “What we are seeing today, however, is predominantly personal travel, with people travelling to see loved ones, moving between homes or otherwise looking for an escape from wherever they have been hunkered down.”
Manufacturers of private jets are seeing a similar shift. Savannah-based Gulfstream, which specialises in big private aircraft rivalling Dassault’s 8X, told me it has had a rise in interest from first-time buyers as well as companies adding to their fleets. “That certainly affects demand for our larger aircraft with higher passenger capacities, including the [$70.5m] long-range G650ER and new [$78m] G700,” says Scott Neal, senior vice-president of worldwide sales.
For those who have the funds there are some “bargains” out there. Jahid Fazal-Karim, owner/chairman of leading private-aircraft seller Jetcraft, says you can pick up a lightly used Dassault 7X – the slightly smaller stablemate of the 8X – for $21m-$24m. “I don’t see prices going down further,” he says. Global 6000s from Canadian aircraft maker Bombardier made in 2014 are available for $21.5m-$22m: “That’s a hell of a deal. You can fly that plane forever.” And Gulfstream G650 Extended Range versions from 2014 or 2015 can be found for around $40m-$45m. “Bear in mind they were about $67m brand new,” he points out.
Buyers are snapping up smaller aircraft too. According to Rob Scholl, senior vice-president of sales and flight operations, Wichita-based Textron Aviation is “seeing positive interest and demand, primarily in our turboprops and light jets. We have customers who, pre-Covid-19, were happy to fly commercial but now want the wellness and safety benefits their own aircraft brings. You know who’s been flying in it, you know your crew, and you don’t have to wait around in airport terminals before taking off.”
That is also the experience of Jetcraft. Fazal-Karim said that while there were some distress sales – including from owners whose wealth came from hard-hit sectors such as retail – the crisis pushed other people into deciding to buy. Many new entrants come from the tech world and from hedge funds.
“They need to move around,” he says, “and they’re not going to charter because there’s too much that’s outside their control.” He is seeing a surge in demand from China, and a significant proportion of buyers in Europe, China and the US are buying for personal rather than business use.
Hardy Sohanpal, head of sales and acquisitions at Monaco-based broker and management company Global Jet, reports plenty of interest. “A lot of my time is spent educating people who were chartering, and are now considering buying for the first time, about the cost of ownership.”
First-time buyers tend to underestimate fixed costs and the importance of preserving the value of their investment, for example with corrosion-protection, Sohanpal said. He also counsels against radical customising of the interior, as that can drive down the jet’s resale value. A Dassault Falcon 7X flying 450 hours a year would cost the owner €5,200-€5,800 per hour, excluding capital cost and deprecation. That would include about €550,000 a year in crew costs, with hourly costs of €400-€500 for maintenance and €850-€900 for fuel. Costs will vary across regions: for example, US fuel and labour prices are lower.
Who takes care of the aircraft is also important. Sohanapal again: “Buyers tend to focus on the management fees charged by aircraft operating companies, but a fee might represent only 1-2 per cent of the total annual budget. An operator with a large fleet can secure volume discounts on big-ticket items.”
Ultra-high-net-worth individuals make up almost all of the client base of aviation specialist Paul Jebely, managing partner of the Hong Kong office of law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman. And the period since March has probably been the most active in his practice. “My clients include individuals from Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and North America,” he says. “I suspect most of them have increased their net worth.” In the past month he has helped clients buy more than $200m worth of new aircraft – “most in cash”, he adds.
He points to a shift in where buyers are coming from, and who they are. “Although the US is and will long be the most active market by number of transactions,” he says, “Asia will recover first economically, and so I expect the bulk of my large transactions to be on behalf of Asian clients in the coming decade.” There are plenty of first-time buyers: “They’re mostly at the lowest end of the market. But I have had one first-time owner purchase a $70m-plus aircraft, in cash.”
One brake on the rise in ownership could be finance. According to London-based Gary Crichlow, director of aviation finance at adviser Arc & Co, “Some lenders have retreated from the market – perhaps not officially, but certainly in a practical sense.”
Helicopters often have their own dynamic within the world of private aviation. Indeed, one might have expected the sector to benefit from people choosing to travel in their own aerial bubble. But according to Charlotte Pedersen, CEO of Luxaviation Helicopters, which manages 34 aircraft around the world, restrictions in travel, closures of airfields that helicopters were based at, and the cancellation of events such as car and horse races hit the sector hard.
One area is bucking the trend, though. “People who are buying yachts are tending to stay onboard for longer,” says Pedersen, “and an increasing number of big yachts are fitted with helidecks.”
A couple of days before I went up in the Dassault 8X, I had a go in a full-motion simulator. I flew the same approach to Chambéry but with computer-generated cloud down almost to the runway. Using all the vision systems, I guided the 8X to a point where, when I broke out of the cloud just 100ft above the runway, I was absolutely certain I would be exactly where I needed to be to guide the aircraft to a safe landing.
At the real Chambéry, in about 28 tonnes of real aircraft, choosing not to land but to climb away in the dark, it was reassuring to see illuminated in bright green all the things that it would be a very good idea to avoid. Such as those very real, very solid mountains.
Correction: the words “as well as companies adding to their fleets” was added to this sentence: “Savannah-based Gulfstream, which specialises in big private aircraft rivalling Dassault’s 8X, told me it has had a rise in interest from first-time buyers as well as companies adding to their fleets” on 29 October 2020