Feb 25, 2008
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Mideast high-rollers spur growth in luxury jet business

Feb 25, 2008

SINGAPORE, Feb 25, 2008 (AFP) - Driven by demand from rich Middle Eastern clients and high-flying businessmen, the market for luxury private jets is booming, industry leaders said at the close of the Singapore Airshow.

Photo : Punit Paranjpe/Reuters

"We have orders that will keep us busy until 2011-2012. Never in the past did we see such demand," says Bernd Habbel of Germany's Lufthansa Technik.

The story is much the same at Switzerland's Jet Aviation, where Alain Thomann notes: "We have steady work until 2012."

When it comes to turning a commercial jet with more than 100 seats into a flying palace with all the trimmings, the two firms are the industry leaders.

It's a relatively hush-hush business: clients usually wish to remain anonymous, according to Thomann.

"They see their plane as their home. You wouldn't want the inside of your house to be on display for all the world to see," he told AFP.

One client who does not mind the publicity is Saudi prince and billionaire Al-Walid bin Talal, who has bought an Airbus A380 superjumbo jet for his own personal use.

"He still has not decided who will do the interior. For the client, the process needs to move quickly, the quality must be the best on offer and of course, the price must correspond to his requirements," Habbel explains.

For such a huge aircraft, never before kitted out for private use, the price will likely top 100 million dollars -- that is, a third of the cost of the plane itself.

Depending on what features the client is looking for, the refitting could take as long as two years.

For other long-haul aircraft like the Boeing 747 or the Airbus A340, two-thirds of the orders for private refittings come from the Middle East, industry experts say.

"Their economies are soaring, boosted by oil revenues. In that region, people are truly fascinated by planes," Habbel says.

For medium-haul jets like the Boeing 737 or the Airbus A320, new clients have emerged like expanding business jet operator NetJets, which offers fractional-share plane ownership and manages a fleet of more than 700 aircraft.

More traditional clients in the mid-range market include governments that put planes at the disposal of key ministers.

Before they approach firms like Lufthansa Technik and Jet Aviation, clients usually already have fleshed out a plan with their private decorators, which then have to get pass the firms' engineers.

"We never do anything to alter the actual structure of the plane. For example, enlarging the windows is impossible," Habbel says.

So what are the most outlandish wishes that have not been granted? A fireplace and a stable, Thomann notes. In-flight baths are also only a fantasy, as turbulence could send water spilling from the tub, causing short-circuits.

But decorators make many of their clients' wildest dreams come true, installing lights to simulate the stars, carpets that look like desert sands, giant TV screens and systems that show passengers where Mecca is at all times.

Habbel recalls how one seemingly impossible request led to an innovation for all air travellers.

"One client wanted to watch the local TV channels in the country he was flying over. We managed to create the necessary technology, which later helped us figure out how to provide Internet access aboard commercial jets," he says.

by Celine Le Prioux

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