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Decked-Out Jets

From sitting rooms to karaoke lounges to movie theaters, clients are customizing private planes to their exacting standards
Phil Scott
From the Print Edition:
Tom Selleck, Nov/Dec 2007

A flying office is one of the ways a customer can personalize his private jet.

A gentleman, who prefers to go unnamed, was in the market for a new jet. Nothing big like a Boeing 737 or an Airbus 380, just something to haul himself, a couple of friends and his pet bull—yes, a pet bull, not a pit bull—around the world. • The man had his eye on a plane built by an American company that also prefers not to go on record. He told them exactly what he wanted, and the completion crew—the people who outfit jets to a customer's specifications—looked into ways to grant the man his wish. A little research revealed that bulls make horrible passengers as they refuse to sit still, which negates the whole issue of a seat belt. The crew settled upon a specially designed flexible bladder that could hold the anesthetized bull (in a jet this size, you really do have to sedate bulls before takeoff) and pass FAA regulations.

After all that work, the customer decided not to buy the airplane.

Although that particular client didn't purchase a plane, many others do, but they still don't want to talk about it. "High-net-worth individuals prefer their privacy," says Patricio Altuna, executive vice president of sales for Associate Air Center at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. "They're concerned about political repercussions, and add to that the element of safety and security." Flying magazine editor J. Mac McClellan concurs. "There are probably as many reasons as there are bizjet owners, but it is universal. No conventional business will even admit to operating a jet, much less speak in detail or allow it to be photographed."

Unless they're entertainers. John Travolta won't shut up about his Boeing 707, tricked out with a lounge and a 1960s-era Qantas paint job. Elvis Presley spent $850,000 in the 1970s pimping out his private ride, Lisa Marie, with leather chairs and gold bathroom fixtures.

Today, customizing a jet interior starts at around $11 million, and completely refitting a jet's interior can cost upwards of $100 million. Yet the price tag hasn't discouraged buyers. According to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, builders in 2005 delivered 750 business jets for a total of $13.2 billion in sales. A year later, 885 jets were delivered—an 18 percent increase—for a total of $16.6 billion.

Put another way, the name of the average private jet customer appears somewhere on Forbes magazine's "World's Billionaires" list. It doesn't take much work to figure out who they are. Still, they're silent. "Because customers demand total privacy, the completion centers won't talk either," McClellan says. But that's not always the case. Some of them will, as long as you promise not to ask for the client's name. After all, despite building a product packed to the gills with fuel and electronic gizmos, with a wingspan of nearly 200 feet, these people are artists.

A few years ago, a client asked Cessna's Cindy Halsey, vice president of interior design engineering and development, to paint a Varga Girl on the nose of his new Cessna. During the Second World War, every American bomber or fighter had a Varga Girl on its nose. But this man didn't want just any Varga Girl; he wanted a reproduction of the original Vargas print he owned. Today, somewhere in the world, a scantily clad pinup beckons seductively near the cockpit of a jet.

Completion centers sprung up after the Second World War. Business was booming, and so was the business trip. Even then, before X-ray machines and strip searches, when everyone wore his best duds to fly and airlines served hot meals with real silverware, frequent flying was a hassle. CEOs bought their very own ex-bombers, and companies such as Associated Air Center in Dallas sprang up to redecorate them. Pretty soon, corporations and big shots bought up all the old bombers, so people turned to business jets built by Cessna, Falcon Jet, Gulfstream and Hawker, or began purchasing used airliners. "We would strip the interior and doÉa nose-to-tail, where they don't retain anything from the original," says Altuna. For heads of state or royalty who fly with staff, bodyguards and maybe reporters, Associated would perform a "partial nose-to-tail," keeping some of the airliner's original seats.

That all changed in 1996.


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