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Air Time

Private Jets are more than a Luxury for Business Executives, Hollywood Stars and Big-Name Athletes
By Jeff Williams | From Bill Cosby, Autumn 94
Air Time

Just what is the price of time these days?

For about $50, you could get a decent hardbound edition of H. G. Wells' The Time Machine. For about $12,000, you could get a gold Rolex watch with diamonds encrusting the bezel. For about $26 million, you could get a Gulfstream IV, the ultimate time machine of the private aviation industry. You could check the Rolex on the way to Kuala Lumpur to see how time flies.

"These planes are all about time," says Gulfstream executive vice president Bob Cooper.

More precisely, they are about the value of time. They are about New York-Little Rock-Memphis-Cleveland-New York ina day.They are about Mansfield, Ohio-South Bend, Indiana nonstop. They are about London-Paris-Munich-Vienna-Rome without touching down or passing through a major international airport. They are about Houston-Aspen right now.

Private jets, from the light, midsized Cessnas and Lears to the junior jumbos of Gulfstream, Falcon and Canadair, are the answer, however expensive, to O'Hare, LaGuardia and LAX. They take people precisely where they want to go whenever they want to go. Of course, unlike the airlines, they don't take just anybody.

Bill Cosby's Gulfstream IV takes him anywhere he likes. Sid Bass flies the friendly skies in his Falcon 900. Golf legend Arnold Palmer, who elevated the sport to international prominence, elevates himself at the controls of his Cessna Citation VII. And there are any number of CEOs--from Disney's Michael Eisner to IBM's Lou Gerstner to Cox Communications' Anne Cox Chambers--who race about the United States and the world at Mach .80 without ever having to fish a boarding pass out of their pockets.

Deep pockets are required of such time travelers. New private-jet aircraft come with multi-million-dollar price tags. For a small six-seat Cessna or Lear it might be $5 million. For a Falcon 900 or Canadair's Challenger 601 (planes on the same level as the Gulfstream IV), the cost is $23 million and up. For the new long-range Gulfstream V, with New York-to-Tokyo capability, the price will be about $35 million, fully fitted. Gulfstream has a backlog of $1 billion in orders for the plane, which will be test-flown next fall and is scheduled for delivery in early 1996.

Operating expenses aren't exactly pocket change, either. A pilot and a co-pilot will run $100,000 or more annually. There are hangar fees, mechanics' fees, fuel, airport charges,mandatory Federal Aviation Administration inspections and the like. A Gulfstream IV (G IV for those in the know--or in the cabin) can cost $3,000 an hour to operate, a midsized Cessna Citation V something less than half that. It takes a substantial corporation or individual to own and operate one of these "thundering thrones."

Jack Nicklaus is such a substantial individual/businessman. (He still plays a little golf, too.) The greatest golfer of all time has become the most prolific golf-course designer, traveling around North America and the rest of the world in his Gulfstream II Air Bear to visit sites from Vienna to Malaysia. He will be taking delivery of a new G IV this fall; its maiden voyage will take him to Hawaii and several sites in the Far East in a two-week trip.

"It has allowed me to do twice as much work and still be fresh," says Nicklaus. "If I had to do this trip to Asia commercially, it would probably take 30 days and I'd probably walk off the airplane dead half the time."

His old G II glided to a graceful stop recently at Westchester County Airport, a small facility about 25 miles north of New York City. Nicklaus had come to visit the country club of Purchase, New York, and a course he is building a little more than a mile from the airport. When the gangway dropped, Nicklaus, dressed casually in shorts and tennis shoes, departed for the waiting car 100 feet away carrying fruit from the trees on his North Palm Beach, Florida, estate. To Nicklaus, Air Bear is his second home, especially when he travels overseas.

"In a country where I don't speak their language and don't eat their food, this plane is my sanctuary," says Nicklaus. "I've had the same CDs and tapes on here for the last six years so that when I come back from a long site visit or meeting with the builders, I can whistle familiar tunes. With all the travel I do I have to keep my sanity somewhere."

Nicklaus can often use smaller airports when he travels internationally. With immigration and customs clearances expedited by an international air-routing company, he can breeze in and out of countries as a generation of travelers ages while waiting for the appropriate passport stamp.

A gold-plated "Golden Bear" wall figure at the top of the gangway is offset against the understated interior of Air Bear in chocolate-colored leather and muted tones. (The "Golden Bear" is Nicklaus' nickname as well as his corporate logo.) Each of the seats converts into a berth, and the two sets of two facing seats convert into something approaching a double bed, good for overnight flights from Boston to the British Isles or from Alaska to Japan. The jet can hold enough food for a week.

The plane is ideal for the kind of work Nicklaus does. Onboard, Nicklaus can meet with members of his design team and review large site maps of golf courses under construction. Together they can spend hours going over the routing of fairways, the shaping of the greens, the positioning of the bunkers. It is work that would be next to impossible to achieve in the first-class cabin of a commercial airliner unless the Pittsburgh Buick dealer and the Baltimore insurance executive agree to move their glasses of Perrier-Jouet or sit in coach.

Air Bear has wider uses, not the least of which is put to use when the Golden Bear is playing golf. Nicklaus still plays competitively and travels from tournament to tournament without fear that his golf clubs are going to be sent to St. Louis by mistake. He uses Air Bear when he's filming commercials or doing promotional work. And occasionally he has a little fun with it, whether it's vacationing with wife Barbara in the Colorado Rockies or filling all 12 seats with friends and flying from Palm Beach to New York to watch his daughter-in-law dance in Madonna's World Tour concert.

Both Jack and Barbara have been actively involved in designing the interior of the new G IV, which will seat 15 people. The advantage of the G IV isn't so much the size. It is range--which translates into time by saving on those pesky fuel stops. Ron Hurst, Nicklaus' captain, will be able to fly the new G IV from Palm Beach to Hawaii nonstop, with a range of 4,200 nautical miles. Palm Beach to Europe will be a snap, though they won't be able to pick up live lobsters in Bangor, Maine, anymore. That might be just as well. When they tried to cook 10 of them in the small galley it was an adventure worthy of Harrison Ford.

And speaking of movie stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger has a G III and John Travolta has a G II. The Hollywood heavyweights are definitely jet-setters, often for reasons that supercede ego. The primary reason that stars of the entertainment industry use private aircraft is security. Getting Schwarzenegger through an airport full of fans would be a production of Terminator II proportions.

Stars flying the across the heavens is a glamorous image the private-aircraft industry does not want to promote. In fact, the industry constantly battles the idea of the airplane as celebrity bauble or executive accessory. "Movie stars flying around in airplanes is not what our industry is about," says Jeff Miller, director of public relations for Learjet. "It's a problem the industry faces; these planes are looked upon as toys. [But] they are used by corporations to enhance their business. They are used generally for fairly mundane reasons."

"Business executives flying from New York to Hong Kong using onboard computers and satellite fax don't make for much of a story," says Gulfstream's Cooper. "People would much rather read about a celebrity or a corporate executive misusing one of these planes than the everyday uses to which they are put."

"Business jets exist to transport people quickly, efficiently, safely and discreetly," says Falcon spokesman John House. "I'm not talking about Hollywood types who buy junkie old airplanes."

Corporate jets are not only for the sole use of chairmen as they pursue the next Big Deal. Xerox runs a shuttle from Westchester County to Rochester for midlevel executives. Other companies send out a large sales team that can leave at eight in the morning and be back before sunset. Increasingly companies are reaching out to customers by using the big jets to bring them to production facilities or corporate headquarters and using the air time to begin the sales pitch.

Both airplane builders and buyers are reluctant to talk about planes in other than general terms. Builders and buyers often cite the fact that corporate airplanes are used in highly competitive situations where discretion is the watchword, hence the need for muting conversation about the jets. Some cite the fact that corporate boards often cast a critical eye on flight departments in times of recession--so it's better not to catch their ears with too much talk about the planes. An additional point is madethat the recession of the early '90s appears to have been only a minor flak barrage on the private-airplane industry in comparison with the surface-to-air missile attack of the early 1980s when flight departments were eliminated and planes were sold or mothballed.

Sometimes you can get a tidbit out of an aircraft executive when it comes to the charitable use of these planes, however. Russ Meyer, CEO of Cessna, is proud of the Cessna ownerswho participated in the 1991 Special Olympics in St. Paul, Minnesota. His company organized the airlifting of 1,500 Special Olympics athletes on more than 200 Cessnas in two days' time. "I think it was the largest peacetime airlift since Berlin," says Meyer.

"I'm proud of the way Bill Cosby uses his aircraft," says Cooper of Gulfstream. "It's used very efficiently for business, which they don't want to talk about, and it's used for some charity purposes, which they also don't want to talk about."

Most of the talking about these planes is done within their elegant cabins. With the possible exception of gold-plated fixtures in the head, the elegance of private jets and international first-class cabins is comparable. What is incomparable is the sheer privacy of speeding at 540 miles per hour at 33,000 feet to a place that you and your companions want to go--and having the ability to change your mind en route. Try telling the captain of a British Airways 747 that you would rather go to Amsterdam than London, a request that is likely to result in your arrest or banishment to coach.

Besides, if you wake up in the middle of the night while your steward is catching a nap, you can toast your own bagel.

Sales of used aircraft are a flourishing business, largely because of the federally mandated maintenance standards that require that planes remain in superior flying condition. Buying a new airplane, however, is an unparalleled experience. "It usually marks a significant passage in an individual's life," says Gulfstream's CEO Bill Boisture.

It means that he or she can afford to buy time.

Jeff Williams is a senior sportswriter for Newsday.