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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
| By Phil Scott | From 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.

That year Boeing introduced the Boeing Business Jet, a 737 known as "green," or unfinished. From the start, the program took off. In the last decade, Boeing has built 119 BBJs, each of which will cost approximately $53 million when delivered. According to Boeing spokesperson Sandra Angers, the program has been such a success that Boeing now offers all but one jet in its entire product line to VIPs. Its latest, the 787, starts at $148 million.

No dummies, Airbus introduced the Airbus Corporate Jet, or ACJ, a green A320, in 1997. Airbus has expanded the program to include the A330, A340, even the Jumbotron A380, and has sold 80 green airliners. That means a lot of green for jet-pimping completion centers.

Despite looking identical when they enter a completion center, no two airplanes come out alike. Like other centers, Associated has its own design department, and the lead designer meets with the clients in their home or on their yacht. There the designer gets a feel for the customer's style, and he discusses his vision for his jet. Designers work with Adobe Photoshop and WebEx and send their 3-D conceptualizations to the customer's computer.

Once both parties agree on the design, construction begins. On average, it takes about 12 months to complete an interior, longer for more elaborate detailing. For jumbo jets, installing unimaginable levels of opulence takes a minimum of one year. But since completion centers don't need the aircraft on site, they can prepare most of the interior beforehand and install it in as few as four months after receiving the airplane. A green 737 ordered today won't be off the production line until 2012. For a 787, expect to wait until 2015.

For a recently completed 747, Associated outfitted the airplane's entire upper deck with private living quarters: a master bedroom, a master bath complete with bidet, and a sitting room. The lower deck holds two large lounges, a table with seating for 14, two guest rooms with their own private baths, and galleys for chefs to prepare gourmet meals. "It was not your run-of-the-mill, warmed-up airline meals," Altuna says. "This 747 was our most spectacular work."

For an apparently television-obsessed client, Fort Worth, Texas—based Phazar Aerocorp built an interior with a 37-inch flat-screen monitor, two 42-inch flat-screens, four 20-inch flat-screens and six 15-inch flat-screens. That's 13 flat-screens! Each screen can be controlled separately, and passengers can watch DVDs or a map charting the plane's progress, follow the flight in real time through a nose-mounted camera or check out satellite TV, thanks to the $375,000 antenna installed in the tail. The plane also has a sitting room, a dressing/bathroom area, two private office areas and a karaoke lounge with a state-of-the-art sound system. "We had 37 speakers inside the aircraft," says Phazar managing partner Brian Perryman. "It was just jamming. Sometimes we would throw on Jethro Tull or some country and western. You could almost rattle the rivets on the wings."

Nothing seems out of the question. Perryman says customers have asked for unusual amenities, such as tortoiseshell sinks with custom solid brass faucets. And then there was that one particular DC-9 airliner conversion he did in 1986. The Golden Nugget Casino in Vegas wanted a wood dance floor and a disco ball installed on its private jet. Perryman's crew laid down 30 feet of FAA-approved wooden flooring the width of the jet, coated it with a fire retardant and built a glass-free disco ball that rotated on a short pole. "I didn't ever fly in it but I imagine they probably danced," he says.

Is there anything that they can't do? "We never had a request for a hot tub," Perryman says. Even billionaires understand that there are limits, otherwise known as FAA regulations. While styling and comfort are important, you can't just install your favorite recliner, console TV, paneling or green shag carpeting. Or even an antique dresser. Everything inside has to meet FAA requirements for sturdiness, flammability and egress. You definitely want to get out fast in a crash. Antique furniture won't pass regulations.

FAA regulations are why bizjet manufacturers such as Gulfstream and Cessna usually install the interiors in their own planes. "They're really geared up to do their own," says Steve Hooper, chief technical engineer for Oregon Aero, a completion center in Scappoose, Oregon. "You have to collect a pretty good amount of data on the airplane, like floor load limitations and airframe data. The manufacturers have been at it a long, long time, so they have file cabinets full of that stuff."

On the other hand, manufacturers such as Boeing prefer to work with independent completion centers, and some of those centers are working with big-name designers. Versace recently announced plans to customize helicopter interiors. Two years ago, Eidsgaard Design, the London design firm led by Peder Eidsgaard, teamed up with Jet Aviation Basel in Switzerland to outfit interiors.

According to Eidsgaard, his firm has finished three jets with Jet Aviation. Eidsgaard's team supervises the construction, checking small changes that happen during the completion and making sure the materials are as close to the buyer's ideal as possible. It's up to Jet Aviation Basel to build everything, and make sure the interior is certified.

"We try to make them look high-quality, like they're very well built," Eidsgaard says. The largest jet has weight restrictions, however. "We try to make the furniture look heavy though they are very light."

Eidsgaard's firm, now known as Pegasus Design, is finishing an Airbus. "The furniture has a very textured feel," says Eidsgaard. "It looks like antiques bought from different antiques shops." Then there's the private movie theater Eidsgaard designed for the front end of a Boeing 787. With its raised seating and a 60-inch plasma screen, it doesn't even remotely resemble the movie screen in United's economy class. Sure, it's been done before—but only in yachts.

While smaller jets don't take that long to complete, most independent centers prefer the big boys. "There's more money in the large aircraft, of course," says Perryman. "You have space to work with. You have more opportunities to make them look more luxurious." According to Eidsgaard, "On smaller [jets] there is much less that we can change, so we have to be creative with little details. The larger ones have vast interiors, several lounges, a sauna, so there is a lot more creativity going into the layout. On the smaller jets you can't change very much, and that's a challenge in itself."

Luckily for the centers, business continues sliding toward the big jets. Recently, Jet Aviation consolidated most of its operations in St. Louis, which is closer to the major airliner manufacturers, and the company is building a new hangar there. Savannah Air Center is expanding to a 101,500-square-foot facility and adding to the new interiors facility built last year and the 12,500-square-foot cabinet shop built in 2004. Associated Air Center has run out of room and is looking to purchase an extra hangar at the Dallas/Fort Worth airport.

With the bigger jets, the sky's most definitely the limit. "You'll find almost anything imaginable in these airplanes, like gold-plated bathtubs," says Hooper. "I once worked on a rock star's plane, where everything inside was black. With entertainers and royalty, anything goes." If you don't believe him, head out to Graceland and check out Lisa Marie.

Phil Scott is a freelance writer living in New York City.