Jet Compulsion

Published in Vanity Fair on December 1, 1995

They glimmered and gleamed. They cost nearly $30 million stripped bare, and they were at war, albeit in the ad pages of high-end business publications and in the flight departments of Fortune 500 companies. On the vast floor of the Las Vegas Convention Center at the National Business Aircraft Association Convention last September, full-scale models of two brand-new luxurious private jets – “business jets”-were on display for the first time. The development of the Gulfstream V and the l00-foot-long Bombardier Global Express signified a great leap forward in the rarefied world of privileged flight. Corporate lords, billionaires, and monarchs with the minimum cash of $33 million to buy and decorate -- plus another million a year to fuel and maintain -- these rare birds, the most conspicuous status symbols of turn-of-the-century society, would now be able to fly from New York to Tokyo, Chicago to Taipei, or Dallas to Cairo at more than 500 miles per hour without stopping to refuel. In the emerging global economy, the ability to eliminate normal 45-minute stopovers with the G V costs the buyer a cool $6 million more than the price of the G V's predecessor, the G IV-SP. Nevertheless, in a shrinking world and an expanding market, these sleek machines, which seat a dozen or so with a crew of three, can chase the sun while their pampered passengers phone, fax, send E-mail, or relax while watching anyone of eight movies just by putting on a pair of Virtual i-glasses. Even the toilet flush is electronically controlled with a gold-plated switch.

Neither jet will actually be ready to fly for a year or two, but the orders are piling up nicely. Gulfstream boasts of having already sold 60, or $2 billion worth -- the first to Seagram C.E.O. Edgar Bronfman Jr. -- the profits from which, the Savannah-based company has said, will allow it to break even on its development costs. Bombardier, the French-Canadian manufacturer, which has not yet rolled out a finished Global Express, claims "in excess" of 40 orders-10 to go to rich Saudis, another to Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, who has also purchased a Boeing 757. (Microsoft C.E.O. Bill Gates, America's richest man, is still flying commercial.) Understandably, these are not high-volume items, and some individuals doubt that two such similar and expensive planes can both survive. Yet Wilson Leach, publisher of Aviation International News, says. "When the first million-dollar airplane came out -- the JetStar, the one James Bond flew in Goldfinger -- you heard people say that no one would spend a million dollars for an airplane. Then, when the G III broke the $10 million barrier, people said, 'That's the end of these business jets; nobody in their right mind will buy them.' Now G lVs and Challengers, as well as the Falcon 900 series, cost in the $20 million range, and they sell 60 to 70 per year. Those numbers are not subsiding."

In fact, private jets seem to create an emotional yearning far beyond people's actual need for them. "We've got a product that defies gravity," says Bob Brown, president of Bombardier's Canadair Group. "This business is extremely emotional, and there's an attachment with customers." Hard Rock Cafe co-founder Peter Morton, who flies a G III, agrees: "I happen to love airplanes. 1 loved them before I understood how expensive they are." Market studies have identified a potential client pool of 500 or so in the whole world for the new, nonpareil aircraft. Bombardier says it would like to be able to deliver two Global Expresses a month for the next 10 years to 250 of the elite. Gulfstream quotes similar figures.

Many of these prestige clients flew in to Las Vegas on their current jets to have a first look. There were an astounding 600 private aircraft parked on the tarmac of the Las Vegas airport during the convention, which attracted more than 20,000 people -- a testament to the perceived necessity of private planes in the world marketplace. A member of the Saudi royal family flew in from Riyadh just for the afternoon to inspect the new offerings. The flight departments of such major corporations as 3M, Honeywell, and Gannett were all hovering around the Gulfstream display. So was a member of the nearly bankrupt city of Washington, D.C.'s National Guard, who blithely told me that the capital's guardsmen were looking to buy a $27 million G IV-SP "for V.I.P. travel."

Over at the Global Express mock-up on the first morning of the convention, financier Kirk Kerkorian, cheered on by ex-astronaut Alan Shepard, sat in the cockpit of the brand-new jet. O. J. Simpson defense lawyer F. Lee Bailey also made an inspection tour, in the middle of closing arguments. So did 27-time Grand Prix-winning racecar driver Jackie Stewart, who kidded. "Planes are much more prestigious than cars. I’d let the wife go before I'd let the jet go." He said his dogs had never flown commercial. Sony C.E.O. Mickey Schulhof, who often pilots the Sony jet himself, flew in to see the new Global Express as well as to tour Challenger models parked at the airport. Also on the Global Express was the pilot of Bill Cosby's Gulfstream IV. Celebrity pitchmen are just coming into vogue in this high-stakes venture. Cosby, for example, has made promotional appearances for Gulfstream. Jack Nicklaus has a contract to meet and play golf with potential Gulfstream buyers, and he flies around the world to supervise the golf courses he designs in a G IV-SP equipped with a shower. The night before the opening of the convention, most of the recognizable faces showed up at a gala Bombardier cocktail party at Liberace's preserved-in-kitsch house, where Vanna White was a featured guest and a frequent form of greeting was "What are you flying these days?"

Interesting question. The National Business Aircraft Association (N.B.A.A.) goes out of its way to portray "business aircraft" as essential corporate tools and to stress that the vast majority of the approximately 10,000 business planes registered with the association are workhorses of the sky. (For tax purposes, in order to have a jet it is wise to form some sort of corporate entity.) The convention floor was awash with the pilots and executives of American Dream success stories. One example: San Antonio's H. B. Zachry Company, a family-close the curtain, take off all my clothes, and relax."

There is no doubt that the cargo on this plane is precious -- collectively, the player passengers aboard earn $30 million a year in salaries -- and they need to be protected. According to assistant coach Tree Rollins, an 18-year N.B.A. veteran player, "You just don't know till you've spent years on the road commercially. You have to spend practically half a day in an airport. Now, your own plane not only saves time but wear and tear on your body, especially for Shaq. With his notoriety, trying to hide out in airports is impossible. This plane is just like being home-actually it's better than my home." Rollins adds, "This plane is about the best thing since grits."

In jet high life, the height of the cabin ceiling is a definite status point. In this plane there is a seven-foot ceiling and a specially woven carpet so thick the players can sleep on it.

Toward the end of the flight, Shaq, the team's captain, was roaming the aisle, sporting a huge gold belt buckle with the letters TWISM.

"What do they stand for?" I asked.

"This world is mine," said the 23-year-old wonder.

At two A.M., when the plane touched down, Shaq and three teammates walked a few yards to his red Mercedes and sped off into the night.

About the only woman to commandeer a corporate jet the way the big boys do is Warnaco boss and Authentic Fitness Corp. chair Linda Wachner. She is constantly flying around on a long-term-leased Gulfstream III to the 20 countries where her companies do business or manufacture their clothes, from the Miracle Bra to Speedo bathing suits, from Valentino lingerie to Calvin Klein underwear. The plane's computer keeps her up to the minute by spouting out her latest world-sales numbers. "I am running two businesses, both global," Wachner says. "The plane saves time. I couldn't do what I do unless I did it with an airplane." For example, in the last seven months, Wachner says, she has made five trips to Hong Kong to launch a joint venture with Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.'s Star TV to introduce home shopping for Warnaco products to a huge TV audience in the Middle East and Asia. (Murdoch, who is No. 13 on the Forbes list, flies in one of News Corp.'s two Gulfstream IVs.)

Wachner has also soared socially with her jet, becoming known for her generosity in offering lifts on her plane to members of the A-list-ferrying Pamela Harriman around Europe, for example, after Harriman sold her late husband's old Westwind II, or jetting Barbara Walters down to the British Embassy in Washington. "If I take people places -- anybody personally -- which I do, I reimburse at levels above what they would pay. We're very careful about it. It's all disclosed in my proxy statement,” says Wachner. "In the world of publicly held companies, you have to."

David Koch, who just bought Jacqueline Onassis's Fifth Avenue apartment in New York, is a key executive of Koch Industries, based in Wichita, Kansas -- "a pathetic place to get in and out of commercially." Koch usually eschews the corporate jet when he's on the Eastern Seaboard, but come the holidays, he needs to fly his guests to his famous New Year's Eve party in Aspen. "I wouldn't have my house in Aspen if I couldn't get there with a private airplane, because there is so much congestion at busy times. It's like a mobile cocktail party. Everybody is always very animated, always having a great time."

Veteran plane customizer Benn Isaacman, who helped design the Bombardier display at the convention, said, "This show would like you to believe the only reason that people have airplanes like this is for business, and that's not true. We're not kidding anybody. You take the jet to the limo to the five-star hotel to the four-star restaurant." Isaacman is currently supervising the painting of a new G IV-SP owned by Nike in black, red, and gray, the colors of one of the company's new sneakers; the underpart of the fuselage will be painted to look like the sole of the shoe. Isaacman thinks most plane owners and businesses are much too uptight about the way they decorate the exteriors of their planes. After all, the motto of the N.B.A.A. is No Plane, No Gain.

In Hollywood, it's No Plane, No Fame. "Other than cigars, planes are the hottest topic among men around here," says Maria Shriver. Shriver's husband, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has virtually terminated commercial flight to own a Gulfstream III. Tom Cruise, Kevin Costner, Harrison Ford, Don Johnson and John Travolta all have their own jets. Steven Spielberg reportedly has had written into his new DreamWorks distribution contract with Seagram-controlled MCA that if the DreamWorks jet is not available to him he has first claim on a Seagram jet.

Private planes have been big in the entertainment world for decades. On display at Graceland is Elvis Presley's big old Convair 880, the Lisa Marie, which he bought in 1975, two years before his death. Nicknamed '"Hound Dog One,” it was used to tour and to take its restless owner on peanut-butter-sandwich runs to Denver. Today, everything in it is encased in plastic, including a blue crushed-velvet queen-size bed the King slept in with a gold-plated seat belt strapped across him. The real Lisa Marie, currently Mrs. Michael Jackson, celebrated her ninth birthday on board.

The late Steve Ross of Warner, who amassed an armada of jets, perfected the art of dangling the company plane in front of stars as part of the wooing process: If the jet makes them happy, give ‘em the jet. “It’s a terrific thing if we have a recording artist we want to re-sign," says Ahmet Ertegun, chairman of Warner Music's Atlantic Group. Spielberg, in fact, has had access to Time Warner jets even when he didn't have a project at Warner Bros. When he was making Schindler’s List in Poland for Universal, a Time Warner jet flew him and his family to Spain for a holiday.

"What's it worth to Edgar Bronfman to have Spielberg's Jurassic Park II at MCA for the next five years while Edgar is trying to prove himself?" asks an entertainment executive. "It's worth five jets." Former Warner Bros. Records chairman Danny Goldberg remembers an artist who was willing to take $100,000 less on his contract if he was promised a free ride to Aspen on the company jet. "It has some sort of totemic value to a lot of people, way beyond the convenience factor, of what a trip on a jet is -- like being invited to court or being knighted,” Goldberg says. "At any given moment, what docs someone have to offer people? Cigars? Great wine? What is there that's left at that level? The jet is the one technical thing that's expensive enough. It has become one of the symbols of being in the elite."

“You can tell a lot about a person by the kind of plane he has,” says Donald Trump, who flies a Boeing 727, which is much larger than a Gulfstream. It is equipped with a movie theater and a bedroom. Fellow casino owner Steve Wynn has two G IVs in Las Vegas, one for himself and one for high rollers. International arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi's leased 707 has a master bedroom separated from a second bedroom by means of a mirrored wall with a concealed door. Some wags in the business refer to these big-boy toys as "ego containers." The Donald, however, feels that you get more bang for the buck with a larger jet. (Trump has always made a statement with his planes. When he was married to Ivana, she ordered a brass floor for their jet but quickly had it changed -- according to a customizer, because she felt that its reflective surface allowed people to see up her skirt.) In fact, most of corporate America would feel rather uncomfortable -- or at least a bit conspicuous -- in front of their stockholders and boards of directors with a plane as large as a Boeing 727, or a 737, or the giant 757.

Although Boeings are somewhat costlier to operate than smaller planes, and are not able to land at as many airports, the irony is that Gulfstreams, Challengers, and Falcon 900s are much more expensive to buy than slightly used Boeings, which are far more comfortable. One pilot said it was the difference between a Cadillac and a Porsche. Today’s C.E.O.'s, however, who tend to treat themselves royally and whose compensation packages reach astronomical heights, often get their companies to pay more for a small jet just so that it will look to their stockholders as if they're making do with less. Fat chance. As a Gulfstream advertising man summarized the C.E.O. mind-set: “I'm rich. I can afford it, I convinced my board of directors. And I want it."

"The C.E.O.’s of all major corporations are very, very cognizant of what they fly,” says plane customizer Douglas Jaffe. "The president of IBM doesn’t want to land and see the president of Arco or Exxon in a better plane. It's one-upmanship between flight departments. They've driven prices into the stratosphere."

“There is an elite club. They all know each other, and about each other -- just like yacht owners,” says plane customizer George Huffington. "What do they spend on? Toys -- that's what it amounts to."

Because planes calibrate status so finely in corporate America, their numbers and use can often become a battleground when mergers occur or when new management moves in. The late William Paley, for example, the founder of CBS, fought bitterly with his handpicked successor, Tom Wyman, over Paley's continued use of the CBS jets, which he considered virtually his, although he could easily have afforded to lease or buy one of his own. When the government bailed out Chrysler in the early 80s, the company was forced to sell its aircraft, but a few years later, when fortunes reversed, Lee Iacocca promptly got a new G IV and also bought the Gulfstream company. Ross Johnson's abuse of the RJR Nabisco jets -- he had his dog flown around on one -- became a symbol of 80s vanity and plunder. Hollywood loves to tell the story -- apocryphal as it may be -- of Jon Peters, who, when he was helping run Sony Pictures, used the Sony jet constantly, once to send flowers to his then girlfriend, the model Vendela, in Paris. Selling off the jets of a troubled company becomes a symbol of "the new rectitude," says former deputy Treasury secretary and mergers-and-acquisitions specialist Roger Altman. "If you're coming into a company that's all screwed up, it's very common to sell the corporate fleet -- you score a lot of points. And you don't have to sell the very last plane -- the very last plane you can use.”

How the C.E.O. uses the company aircraft can become a metaphor for overall mismanagement. When William Agee became C.E.O. of Morrison Knudsen in Boise, Idaho, in 1988, for example, the company plane was a Falcon 50, a medium-priced jet that sat nine. It was immediately redecorated by Agee's controversial wife, Mary Cunningham. In 1991, Morrison Knudsen purchased a much grander, used Falcon 900 for $17 million, and Cunningham ordered new decor, including red carpeting and gold-leaf flowers on the bulkhead, at a cost of $400,000. "Bill and Mary sold this bill of goods that since the company was expanding internationally we needed a longer-range plane, even though we'd gone to Poland, Germany, and Yugoslavia in the 50," says Pat Moore, the retired chief pilot of Morrison Knudsen. The crew, who were used to bringing in paper buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken to eat, had to begin using china and Waterford crystal and to have catered food for Cunningham, though, Moore says, "half the time we didn't know if Mary was going to be on board." When the Agees decided they didn't care for life in Boise and moved to California, next to the golf course in exclusive Pebble Beach, the aircraft became a virtual commuter plane for them, at $3,000 an hour-even though the company was losing millions. Moore remembers that several months before Agee was forced out, the plane's crew was able to tell that he was in trouble, because a member of the Morrison Knudsen board of directors who was flying back to California with Agee from a business meeting was dropped in San Jose before Agee was flown home. The sign was unmistakable to all on board that power had shifted.

The idea of the rich separating themselves is nothing new. Sixty years ago, the amphibious, 190-miles-per-hour, four-passenger Grumman Goose used by a small group of tycoons that included Earl Harriman. Marshall Field III, and Henry S. Morgan would fly in from summer estates on Long Island to the foot of Wall Street and land at the downtown skyport on the East River, much as the myriad helicopters flying to and from the Hamptons do today. Where the pier stuck out into the river, there was a partly submerged ramp for the Goose to taxi onto. After the passengers were discharged, the ramp was turned around so that the Goose was pointed homeward. Ten of the Wall Street titans who used the Goose, which cost $68,000 new, formed their own "Aviation Country Club."

In the late 50s, Joseph Kennedy Sr. was one of the first moguls to have his own plane, The Caroline, which proved to be an invaluable tool in the political ascent of his son John F. Kennedy. Today, politicians and jets still mix, though somewhat combustibly. President Clinton's secretary of agriculture Mike Espy had to resign in part because of the free rides he accepted on the jet of Tyson Foods. Senate majority leader and Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole has also been criticized for his constant use of jets belonging to companies which benefit from legislation he sponsors. Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes sedulously avoids using his late father's DC-9, the Capitalist Tool, while campaigning.

There is just something about the thrill of being in one's own jet that breeds excess. Because there's an assumption that planes are so costly, one chief pilot of an insurance company in the 70s was able to purchase two Corvettes with money siphoned from the maintenance budget. "It's obviously an enjoyable extravagance. They don't make a whole lot of financial sense," says Peter Morton, who admits he has raced commercial airliners in his G III, buzzed islands in the Bahamas, and taken turns with Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wcnncr (who flies a G II) to see "who could go the lowest over each other's beach houses in Southampton." A passenger with Barry Diller in his Gulfstream II tells of Diller's pride one day in calculating that his jet was going five nautical miles per hour faster than a nearby commercial airliner.

But no matter how much the men check out one another's planes to see if they have the requisite raised winglets on their wingtips -- the equivalent of old Cadillac tail fins and the dead giveaway as to whether or not you're flying the most deluxe G III or G IV -- it is totally uncool in terms of jetiquette for the women who ride them to flaunt it. Of course, there are Hol1ywood wives who brag that they haven't been in a commercial airport in 15 years, and Sylvester Stallone's ex-wife Brigitte Nielsen, according to a customizer, did have her Saudi-prince boyfriend send his newly done jet back to the hangar in Texas -- at a cost of $250,000 -- because the bidet in the master suite was built too close to the ground for her long, long legs, but generally speaking the ladies don't openly boast. Philanthropist Bunny Mellon will probably not mention that the family plane flies with a rotating collection of paintings by such artists as Braque, Klee, and Dufy, "A woman asked me if I had turbulence problems," says Barbara de Kwiatkowski, wife of the aircraft tycoon, who has turned the family BAC 1-11, a plane built originally to seat 117, into a cozy apartment personalized down to the needlepoint pillows. "I thought she meant indigestion. Then I realized it was an entree to talk about private planes. You just can't do it. It's too pretentious."

Proper jetiquette includes a whole code of understatement. For instance, people know you're traveling privately if you say just the name of the airport: "We flew into Teterboro." "I landed at Van Nuys." "We're going out of Santa Monica." Gulfstreams and smaller jets allow one to do that; people with bigger planes have to use commercial airports. And you never say "jet," always "plane." Other rules of the runway, according to designer Diane von Furstenberg: “Nobody plays it up -- wear sweats. And you must never be late." It also goes without saying, according to one frequent flyer, that "you must not carry drugs. The plane could be confiscated."

Owners of jets distinguish among several categories: the ultra-rich, who own planes which are for their use alone: the rich, who own expensive planes but who help defray costs by chartering them out; the C.E.O.’s who have practically unlimited use of the company plane: those who lease or charter their jets: and the newest, potentially largest category, those who time-share a jet by purchasing a fixed number of hours to fly per year in exchange for the promise that the jet will be ready to go wherever they want at four to six hours' notice. "It's allowing people who otherwise could not afford their own airplanes to have total utilization," says Wilson Leach, who calls the time-sharing of jets "maybe the most significant thing that has happened in this industry other than hardware development."

At the extreme upper level are the super-rich, such as San Francisco's Ann and Gordon Getty, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, and the Sultan of Brunei. Ann Getty’s Boeing 727, a birthday gift from her husband which ended up costing about $40 million, did not even begin to get refurbished in Texas until a 70-foot-long mock-up, which itself cost nearly $1 million, had been constructed. In order to complete the décor -- which included a floor made to look like the stones in a temple near Bangkok, inlays of 40 exotic woods, six original 17th-century celestial maps sealed in Plexiglas, and a gold-leaf passageway -- designers and a band of artisans had to take up residence in Texas for more than a year. When the jet was finished, Getty was so eager to take her new plane on a trip to London with some girlfriends that there was not time to test everything. As a result, on the maiden voyage a major electrical problem occurred, and the 727 had to turn back to Texas from New York. It arrived in London a day late.

"Anything you can do for your home, you can do in an airplane says customizer George Huffington. "It just costs 10 times more." New jets arc delivered “green," or stripped. It's up to the owners to decide how to decorate them. Considering that the average cost of finishing the cabin of a new Global Express or G V is $3 or $4 million and that the average square-footage is 300, that amounts to about $10,000 a square foot.

Apart from strict regulations governing what materials can be used in a plane, there are also all those little extras especially if you use fabrics that run to $300 a yard, install solid-gold toilets, and set diamonds in your vermeil flatware, as the Sultan of Brunei does. But even Fortune 500 companies are willing to spend thousands on monogrammed linen place mats and cashmere throws. The capacity to have incoming phone calls costs an extra $750,000 to $1 million. A “completion specialist” recalls a Middle Eastern prince who had the door of his jet moved to the middle of the aircraft -- for a mere $6 million. “I just said, you know, 'Your Highness, everybody will copy you. It's a brilliant idea.' These guys do not want you to accuse them of ever having a bad idea."

Unequaled in the realm of "heads-of-state aircraft” is King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, far surpassing King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, who has 24-karat-gold thread in his upholstered seats, which cost $50,000 each. Fahd's Boeing 747 with three stories, connected by an elevator – has a complete operating room stocked with his blood in the event that he should require heart surgery in the air. Because the king owns several transponders and satellites around the world, it is possible to hook up his surgeons in the flying operating room directly to the Cleveland Clinic Heart Center via several television screens, which arc tested daily. The king’s plane also contains a throne room with a throne, and instruments which indicate at all times the direction of Mecca and the plane's distance from Mecca. In fact, “Mecca setters" are common in jets belonging to Middle Eastern dignitaries. Should the king be attacked by enemies, the plane carries the same U.S.-made missiles that are on Air Force One.

What can the future possibly hold? Mini-supersonics that will fly faster than the speed of sound. Baby Concordes. And by then gold-plated toilet flushes will no longer be the rage. "Gold's old news," completions manager Jim Harrison said in Las Vegas. "Everybody's plating in platinum now."

VANITY FAIR DECEMBER 1995

Similar Articles

Browse by decade

Browse by publication

Newsweek
Vanity Fair
National Geographic

Browse by Tag