Avoid hoi polloi, airport queues and 'chicken or beef': flying privately is more affordable than you might think, says Richard MacKichan
In late 1995, easyJet’s first orange-tailed Boeing 737 left Luton airport bound for Scotland. The ads read: “Fly for the price of a pair of jeans – only £29 one way.” Stelios needs better jeans, we replied, but on we piled, keen to be part of this nascent cheap flights boom.
As the years passed, the easyJet novelty waned as queues lengthened, baggage allowances shrunk to no more than a washbag and your knees seemed to get closer to your chest on each flight you took.
Those Sex Pistols lyrics about “a cheap holiday in other people’s misery” began to ring true and we all went flocking back to our BA gold cards and frivolous business class upgrades.
So now, even if you’re lucky enough to find yourself reclining at the very front of first class, you can’t help but gaze out at those sleek little private jets nestled on the runway equivalent of a nightclub VIP area and let out a longing sigh. You picture P Diddy or Donald Trump or Roman Abramovich supping champers and darting from country to country at the drop of a very expensive hat and think, “Wouldn’t that be nice?”.
But what if I told you that a foreign jaunt, at the drop of a mid-priced hat, aboard such a jet is not outside the realms of possibility? The experience can vary, of course. For a few hundred pounds you and a partner can share a Channel-hop in a twin prop with eight strangers. For significantly more, you can cross the Atlantic.
A 50-plus pursuit
Shaunak Upadhya, founder and director of London’s The Private Jet Service, has seen such private jet travel become an increasingly 50-plus pursuit.
“We still get plenty of young playboys but we’ve got a largely grown-up customer base. Fiftieth birthdays in particular are popular excuses to fly private.”
Scott Leviton, director of sales at the world’s first private jet tour operators, TCS & Starquest Expeditions, agrees: “A common theme I hear now is, ‘I worked very, very hard for this money and I am going to enjoy it and enjoy the world’!”.
Fancy an afternoon in Le Touquet, a few holes of golf and a nice lunch with some of your pals? The Private Jet Service can track down the most conveniently placed private aircraft and get you there and back for as little as £300 per passenger. Not bad considering the experience includes dedicated personal contact, a choice of departure destinations and fine on-board refreshments.
Shaunak says: “The joy is that you can take off and land pretty much anywhere – within reason! And we aim for people to arrive and fly within ten minutes.” (Take that, easyJet queuers!) Even travelling from established airports has its perks when you’re taking the private option: Luton, for instance, has its own Harrods in the VIP lounge.
The Private Jet Service has extended this personal touch to embrace concierge-like duties too. Want to surprise your other half? Have a special invitation printed and sent through the post. Want some Nobu nosh on the way to Nice? No problem! Need a yacht when you get there? Call these people…
“Private jets used to be a very stuffy industry,” says Shaunak. “But we like to embrace innovative ideas. If people ask our advice, we’re happy to help.”
I’m told there are no requests too bizarre. There are apocryphal industry tales of flights being diverted to pick up a particular type of caviar.
But maybe jetting around in search of the choicest cuisine sounds just like your idea of heaven? In which case, TCS & Starquest Expeditions’ Cultures and Cuisines tour should be the trip of several lifetimes. You board a private 757, stripped of seats to give just 80 passengers VIP-style two-by-two rows. You head around the world to sample ten feast-filled destinations over a luxurious three weeks. iPads packed with information and entertainment are available, you receive local currency at your destination, and there’s an astonishing ratio of one crew member to every five passengers.
Reykjavik serves as the hors d’oeuvre before you take in goulash in Hungary, Punjabi spices in India, real Chinese tea, fresh Vietnamese markets, an Arabic banquet in Oman, some classics from the Med in Crete and finish off with some nice Burgundy in France.
The experience continues on the jet too. Scott Leviton says: “The executive chef sources local specialties and delicacies for the onboard meals. The chef does a little talk before each meal to discuss the ingredients and how each dish was prepared. Thus, the food discovery element is woven throughout the entire journey.”
This is just one of the trips on their roster, and a touch dearer than a daytrip to Le Touquet. But as the company’s MD, Shelley Cline, says: “Travelling by private jet is the most convenient, most comfortable and safest way to do this type of programme. There is no other way to see so many world highlights in just three weeks. With the hassles at airports now, seeing the world by private jet is more convenient, comfortable, and accessible than ever.”
Whatever your motivation – whether you are stuck for a memorable 50th birthday idea, gunning for a grown-up adventure or have simply spent enough time being squashed into crowded jumbos to take a Sartrean view of other people – private jets can be an affordable luxury.
Oh, and Stelios, you can do it for much less than a pair of jeans.