Playboy Magazine bunnies at London airport with the Playboy jet “Big Bunny”.
Playboy Magazine bunnies at London airport with the Playboy jet “Big Bunny”.
Image: Getty Images / Stringer / AFP

It's day something-something-million of lockdown and all you can do is sit in your chesterfield wingback and mindlessly spin your world-map lamp around, plotting where you’d like to hightail it to when this is over.

Naturally, the thought of jetting to your next holiday, surrounded only by family or well-screened friends, is so much more appealing than a buttock-clenched 12-hour session in an aluminium can with hundreds of disease vectors, right?

Unfortunately, those private charters don’t come cheap.

A private jet to Europe (return) will set you back by about R1-million — if you take one of the smaller business jets, a Lear, say; in which case you’ll need to stop and re-fuel. Jets that can go the whole transcontinental hog — like a Gulfstream 5, for example — will cost about R1.5-million return.

Divvying it up per person — smaller business jets seat between four and six — works out at between R166,000 and R250,000 a head, easily comparable to a first-class ticket to the same destination. Meanwhile a charter down to Cape Town in a King Air 200 turboprop, about three-and-a-half hours’ flight time, will cost about R150,000 and take only six to eight people.

The standard response to a private-charter quote from local bosses is: “We don’t want to buy the airplane, we just want to use it for a day.”

But why is it so expensive? In a nutshell, it’s exactly what you’re trying to avoid: bums on seats.

An airliner with a three-class configuration, for example, can cram 300 people between its tinny walls — thus spreading the cost.

It’s partly because the fuel burn on any business jet or turboprop is “incredibly high”, say industry players. Then don’t forget maintenance costs and the fluctuating rand. The last bit is key because all assets are valued in dollars, so you need to calculate your return on investment with a falling rand factored into the equation. Spare parts are all generally manufactured in the US and priced in dollars. Engine overhauls do not come cheap, nor does heavy maintenance. It all adds up to a rather expensive jaunt.

And while the cachet of flying your own jet to whatever airport you please protected from the spluttering rabble is certainly a thing, your in-flight comforts are nowhere close to the experience on Emirates or Singapore Airlines, for example.

Hugh Hefner and Barbi Benton onboard the Big Bunny in 1970.
Hugh Hefner and Barbi Benton onboard the Big Bunny in 1970.
Image: V. Thompson/Fox Photos

In a sense, many business jets are the biggest scam on the market, says the head of a local private-charter group. “You don’t have lie-flat seats that you’d get in business class — it’s quite cramped — and you don’t have the array of in-flight services you can now expect on a top-notch airline, such as on-demand food and movies.”

It’s also much noisier than if you were cosseted in the plush surrounds of your mini suite in a Boeing cabin. And then there are the toilets and baggage limitations: cramped ablution facilities and a limited baggage hold. Suddenly, the appeal of going private is somewhat dimmed.

“The fallacy of luxury in a business jet is very real. It’s probably about 100% more comfortable travelling on an airliner than a business jet. Even in the ultimate of luxurious business jets — the Gulfstream 5 — you still don’t have lie-flat beds,” says Riccardo Talevi, head of local charter group King Air Services (he’s also my brother, hence my interest in planes).

You do, however, have the luxury of flying when you want and, more importantly in these stricken Covid times, of deciding with whom you will fly. In terms of social distancing, you’ll probably still be at a greater remove in a first-class cabin than wedged into a tiny Lear. After all, Emirates now offers your own room (that’s not more room, it’s a room) in first class.

Private jets are also subject to the same regulations that govern any intercontinental flight: customs and immigration. Sure, you might not stand in the same queues but you can’t jump them entirely.

The thing is, commercial air travel might not be as dangerous as you believe it to be. Says the International Air Transport Association, “The risk of transmission of Covid-19 from one passenger to another passenger on board is very low. Possible reasons are that customers sit facing forward and not toward each other, seat backs provide a barrier, the use of Hepa filters and the direction of the air flow on board (from ceiling to floor), and the limited movement onboard aircraft once seated add to the onboard protection.” But it’s clear that it will take years for air travel to resume anything approaching its pre-Covid levels.

GET SET TO JET SET

If we haven’t put you off the expense, what are your options, either as a passenger or a business looking to snap up your own vessel?

According to local site Air Charter Service, “A brand new Cessna Citation M2, a light jet that seats seven, costs about $4.5-million at base price; the Learjet 75, a popular midsize jet that seats nine, costs about $13.5-million; and the ultra-luxurious Gulfstream G650, a heavy jet that seats up to 10, has a base price of $64.5-million. If a buyer plans on travelling with more passengers than that, the 17-seat Bombardier Global 6000 costs $60.5-million.”

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip in an Andover aircraft of the Queen’s Flight in 1969.
Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip in an Andover aircraft of the Queen’s Flight in 1969.
Image: Bettmann

If money is no object at all — or you’re the head of some poor, struggling state — you’ll probably want a Boeing business jet. It’s essentially an airliner that has been converted, like South Africa’s Inkwazi, our version of Air Force One.

What’s more, if you’ve got cash in the company kitty and aren’t laying off staff, there is a lot to be said for the tax write-off enjoyed by aircraft. As a 12C tax allowance you can write off a fair whack of expenses and depreciation every year on a (new) $60-million business jet. The tax write-off has always been a compelling pull for private-aviation enthusiasts.

To be fair, it’s not as if private charter isn’t seeing some Covid-related business heading its way. Transatlantic law firm Womble Bond Dickinson (WBD) says the private-aviation market in the US saw a “significant spike” earlier this year, which it attributes to the transportation of people out of Covid-infected areas, where commercial aviation had either been shut down entirely or severely limited. “Since then,” it says, “the private-jet market has fallen in line with the economy at large as shelter-in-place orders have eliminated nearly all travel.”

But the firm says it’s entirely possible that the private-jet industry could see both a return to the same kind of conditions of earlier this year, as well as a period of growth.

WBD likens the present inflection point for air travel to the events post-September 11. “Of the 20,000 commercially licensed charter aircraft in the United States, 80% saw an increase in year-over-year bookings in the fourth quarter of 2001,” it says. Executives used private-charter flights to take advantage of a drop in flight availability, as well as avoid the security protocols that followed the Twin Tower attacks.

Factors now working in favour of the private-aviation market, they say, include the lower cost of fuel, a plethora of aircraft on the market, and convenience as commercial flights are cut down.

Hugh Hefner and Playboy bunnies onboard the Big Bunny.
Hugh Hefner and Playboy bunnies onboard the Big Bunny.
Image: Getty Images / Hulton Archive

The New York Times recently reported that NetJets, the largest private-jet operator in the world, is enjoying an influx of new customers. “May is on track to be the best month of new customer relationships that we’ve seen in the past 10 years,” says its president, Patrick Gallagher.

Mike Clark, CEO at local charter operation Swift Flite, believes there’s a good opportunity for charter companies to capitalise on regional business travel as airlines struggle to get going again. “What I have realised [given] numerous requests for business travel in the region is that the number of South Africans doing business in Africa is huge.” These include places like Conakry in Guinea, Dakar, and Mali — not easily accessed by any commercial airline.

Airlines, of course, are also pretty reliant on tourism, and while the market for leisure travel remains almost entirely shuttered, business travel will have to fill the gap. “I think we as charter companies need to capitalise on that,” says Clark.

 From the July issue of Wanted 2020.

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