FLYING PRIVATE is just that – private. And confidential. Aviator takes a look at the world of private flying where corporate pilots transport their VIP clients both on short hops and around the globe in absolute luxury.
MOVIE STAR Johnny Depp and his wife Amber Heard were recently at the centre of an international quarantine scandal after arriving in Australia via private jet and allegedly “smuggling” their two dogs, Boo and Pistol, into the country without declaring them to authorities. Federal Minister for Agriculture, Barnaby Joyce threatened to euthanise the terriers if they weren’t sent back to the U.S. within 50 hours of being discovered at a Gold Coast grooming parlour. Depp, who was in Australia filming the latest sequel of Pirates of the Caribbean, took Joyce’s threats seriously and reportedly spent $320,000 to have his beloved canines flown to Los Angeles. “Boo and Pistol didn’t get out and walk across the tarmac to their private chartered jet,” revealed a local TV reporter. “They were driven straight into the hangar, carried in their cages straight on board and then allowed to walk around the cabin …”.
Joyce indicated that Depp had intentionally ignored Australian laws, which require animals being brought into the country to be declared. He said: “When these corporate jets come in they are supposed to sign a manifest of what is on the plane, what people are on the plane and certainly if they’re carrying any dogs.
“I don’t know where he had them – in the Louis Vuitton bag,” he jested, “but anyway they’ve wandered through with them and they probably think that it’s fair enough and that they’re above the law, but they’re not. Mr Depp – and God bless him, sexiest man alive and all that, Jack Sparrow – he’s got to abide by the laws of the nation otherwise the dogs have got to go.”
When asked what would happen if the dogs weren’t removed within 50 hours, Joyce said: ‘We’re going to have to destroy them. That’s the deal. And if people think that’s a bit harsh, well I’ll tell you what harsh is. Harsh is if we let down our guard and ultimately rabies gets into the country.’ It’s time that Pistol and Boo buggered off back to the United States.”
While to some, this case is a mere storm in a teacup, celebrities, the filthy rich and aircraft are often an explosive concoction doomed to eccentric and, at times, obnoxious behaviour.
French actor Gerard Depardieu peed into a bottle in the aisle of a plane; Sienna Miller and Rhys Ifans frolicked unashamedly in front of other passengers in a single bed; singer Brian McFadden was marched off a flight after passengers complained that he smoked, drank heavily and hurled abuse at those around him; Alec Baldwin refused to stop playing a game on an electronic device after being asked to do so by a flight attendant … the list goes on and on. Then there are the likes of Liam Gallagher, Naomi Campbell, David Hasselhoff, Josh Duhamel, Justin Bieber and Whitney Houston, just a few more unfortunates belonging to the ever-growing and infamous hall of shame. But what about celebs and the mega-rich who use private aircraft to traverse the globe? And what’s it like for corporate pilots who witness the celebrities’ boorish antics?
A friend of mine has been a corporate jet pilot for more than 20 years. A wonderful raconteur, John (not his real name) has regaled us with some wonderful stories over the years, and when asked to share an insight into the unique world of corporate aviation, he gladly provided an honest appraisal of a sector that is often misunderstood.
“Stepping into the cockpit of a corporate jet is similar to stepping into a confessional,” John says. “Pilots enter a realm of intimacy with their passengers, and knowing how to deal with the theatrics of clients can be just as difficult as landing in a vicious crosswind in horizontal rain. If a pilot doesn’t suitably deal with these personal situations, he could lose his job. You can be the best aviator in the world, but if you can’t deal with the personal aspect of corporate charter clients, then, as Stinger warned Maverick and Goose in Top Gun, you’d probably be better off ‘flying a cargo plane full of rubber dog shit out of Hong Kong’,”
Corporate pilots enter a private world of an affluent elite that is often demanding and dysfunctional, and it takes a unique talent to deal with their clients’ quirks. Stories abound around behaviour like the MD who became enraged because a vegemite sandwich that she had ordered was presumed to be for a child. The caterer had thoughtfully cut off the crust. The flight was delayed so that a new vegemite sandwich could be made “properly” for the MD because she just had to have that crust.
“I’ve seen it all,” John says. “Most of my clients have been and still are, respectful and grateful for the services we provide, but I have several examples of client behaviour that would make those of us who live in the real world, cringe with exasperation and disbelief. I’ve had clients demand focaccias and skinny lattes at a dirt strip in the middle of the outback; a vegetarian ‘snack’ that cost over $500 for one person, and a request to call ahead to arrange for a Ferrari rental car at an airfield in Western Australia’s isolated northwest. I’ve had a paralytic client insisted on renting a car once we landed at our destination (I defused the situation by organising a limo service), and another who insisted on finishing smoking a joint (hence delaying the flight), even after I’d reminded him that marijuana was an illegal substance. It just seems to be that a lifetime of entitlement can warp a person’s perception of the world, and for many pilots, their jobs are on the line if they can’t please such precious clients.”
When John first became a corporate pilot, his inclination was to rage against his clients’ largesse and poor behaviour but he soon realised that wasn’t part of his job description. “As a pilot, I am just a man getting paid to fly an aeroplane,” he says. “I had to remind myself that it wasn’t up to me to set personal rules and make moral judgments of my clients. My job is to get the people who are paying to their destination safely. All the rest is none of my business.”
So how do corporate pilots deal with misbehaving clients? “Act professionally and do your job,” replies John. “And whatever happens in the cabin, stays in the cabin. Corporate pilots will be placed in an awkward situation at some point in their careers. Maybe it’s a fight between family members, or a drunk client who shouldn’t be driving a rental car. Maybe it’s a client who’s puffing on a joint or indulging in some Mile High Club intimacy. For the most part, your role is to ignore it, but there will be times when you have to step in to keep you and your passengers safe. It’s your job.”
According to John, the job requirements of a pilot these days goes beyond just flying a machine. Not only is it learning complex machinery in complex airspace, it is about pleasing clients to please employers. It often puts pilots in interpersonal situations beyond the call of duty.
“Just remember, if you’re ever in an uncomfortable situation, use the resources and people around you to find a solution. If a client is doing something unusual, a phone call to the chief pilot or flight dispatcher might save your job. Just letting someone else know that you need help controlling a customer situation helps you relax and regain some semblance of control.”
Rick Pegus, Managing Director at Skypac Australia, a private jet charter business based at Bankstown Airport, empathises with “John” in the Mile High Club scenario, but unlike John, he says that he has never had any dramas with clients.
“We had a radio station promoting the Mile High Club and we flew a willing couple over the Blue Mountains in a light jet,” Rick says. The lady and gentleman then proceeded to earn membership to the exclusive institution after a wild frolic between the sheets. “That was interesting,” John says. “But we’ve also flown many high profile clients, movie stars, rock stars and bands, and most of them aren’t all that bad to deal with. They might have special catering requirements or they might be particular about what brand of water they have on board or how pilots address them, but generally, we haven’t had anything really strange or any unusual requests.”
So why do clients prefer to fly in corporate aircraft and what kind of services does Skypac provide?
“Hiring a jet is the best and most efficient way for executives to travel because they can be in a lot more places in the same day than if they fly regular RPT,” Rick replies. “It’s comfortable and they can work – they have an environment where they can be productive en route to their destination. For non-executives a corporate jet offers comfort and privacy and because we can be ready to go within a couple of hours’ notice, there are no long queues or security and everything’s handled behind closed doors.” Perfect.
“Private jets are also popular because there’s a limited number of airports that are serviced by RPT services. Mid-sized jets can access hundreds of regional airports that aren’t serviced by regional airlines so if you want to go from Bankstown to a mine with its own airstrip, no problem, you can go. There’s no waiting around trying to figure out timetables or how to get there; you just get up and go. This type of flying is functional and practical.”
Skypac recently moved into a larger hangar facility at Bankstown Airport, one that is capable of accommodating aircraft as large as the Gulfstream or Global Express. At the time of writing, the company was also building a new state-of-the-art facility that is scheduled to be completed this month. The facility will be an FBO that will have a nice passenger lounge with tea and coffee facilities, access to car hire and chauffered limousines, plus airside access to the aircraft, allowing the rare luxury of door-to-door service to clients. Rick says that the reason Skypac is building the facility is to attract more high-end clients across from Sydney Airport. “Mascot has its limitations,” Rick says. “There’s very limited hangar space available and there are delays and complexities that go with operating out of an international airport. We intend to increase the level of service available at Bankstown to attract people to use it over Sydney Airport.”
Skypac’s fleet comprises a Citation Mustang and Citation II while additional aircraft are operated on other AOCs. “We’ve got a few competitors but we generally work with our competition,” Rick says. “If we come across any inquiries that don’t suit us but suit another operator, we’ll pass it onto them and take an agent’s fee.”
Rick says that business has taken a beating since 2008, resulting in the closure of several of Skypac’s competitors. However, after a dreadful 2014, “probably the worst year”, things have gradually improved due to the loyalty of the company’s regular customers. “It has improved this year but not by as much as we’d like,” he says, “but those of us who’ve survived have our regular customers to thank. The others went under because there just wasn’t enough general charter or new customers coming through the door.”
Private jets are indeed one luxury item that remain beyond the reach of most ordinary folk and small-to-midsize businesses, but what about helicopters? Surely these are a more attainable form of transportation?
Of course, “more attainable” is a relative term, even for those who can afford to spend hundreds of thousands, if not millions, on air transport. But there’s no doubt that helicopters have a cherished place when it comes to transporting the rich and famous. For the ultimate in luxury and comfort, look no further than the Eurocopter Hermès EC135. Indeed, Eurocopter’s decision to put the 135 in the gifted hands of the designers at the French fashion house known best for its ultra high-end leather handbags, shoes and accessories, has proved to be a masterstroke.
The cabin has been completely redesigned by Hermès to maximise the available space in what is already a spacious passenger compartment. Surfaces from floor to ceiling have been covered in “Toile H,” a Hermès staple used in the manufacture of the firm’s travel-ware going back to the 1920s. Seats (four in the main cabin and two in the cockpit) and banquette are handcrafted and upholstered in naturally grained calf leathers.
But there’s more to this interior than good looks and high-end materials. Eurocopter says that the Hermès EC 135 also uses fabrics and leathers that are intended to soften ambient noise and vibration. In addition, consoles, drawers and cabinets have been recessed or placed entirely out of view, and a sliding glass partition separates the passenger area and cockpit, enhancing privacy while still allowing natural light to enter. Overhead air-conditioning ducts have been center-aligned across the ceiling for a cleaner look. Even the landing gear was redesigned to allow for more “elegant access,” presumably by passengers in high heels and short dresses.
The there’s the Mercedes EC145 – another high end helo this time a twin-engine with Mercedes-Benz styling tailored to suit a range of travel needs for the well heeled – be it taking the family for a weekend away or ferrying corporate clients around in style. This is where the super-rich can take control and learn to fly themselves around in the style they’ve become accustomed to. There’s even ambient cabin lighting that can be adjusted to a number of different colour and brightness settings like those found in the S and E-Class to ensure the sensitive traveller doesn’t receive a shock to their system when transferring from their car to the helicopter.
Another design house was commissioned to jazz up the interior of the VIP stalwart, the Agusta Westland. ‘Fast’ and ‘beautiful’ are the words used to describe this helicopter by those fortunate enough to operate it. That’s right, this is a “Versace” helicopter. AugustaWestland teamed up with the Italian fashion house to create a super luxe interior for this fancier version of the AW109. The cabin is longer than the regular AW109, though the specs are about the same: it still has a top speed of about 285 km/h and a range of 1,000 kms. The only difference is that all one thousand of those kilometres will be more luxurious for the VIP passengers.
For those corporations or wealthy entrepreneurs with a big family, there’s always the luxurious version of an airborne SUV, the turbine-powered Robinson R66. This manages to improve upon the world’s best-selling helicopter, the Robinson R44. However, Robinson had long-term reservations about engine choices, so they eventually teamed up with Rolls Royce who designed a lighter, simpler and less expensive powerplant, the RR300. Accordingly, it’s still classified as a light helicopter, so the R66 is an ideal machine for corporate operations.
And finally, there’s Swiss-based manufacturer, Marenco’s SKYe SH09, a flash new five-to-eight seat single-engine utility chopper. The Marenco is the perfect private aircraft for the successful entrepreneur or cashed up celebrity, boasting a cabin that makes the most of a flat floor and unique high ceiling.
So whether you want to make a short hop down to the shops via a CBD helipad, a long-haul flight in secrecy and luxury; whether you want to proceed under your own steam or be carted around by a professional pilot, there are a handful of incredibly opulent options available. We’d suggest you start saving now.