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Ready. Jet Set. Fly!

In Asia, private jets are the extravagant toys of the rich, but in the West, they may be indispensable for business.

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In Asia, private jets are the extravagant toys of the rich, but in the West, they may be indispensable vehicles for business.

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TO each his own - private jet. Bill Gates, the world's richest man, once referred to his Bombardier BD-700 Global Express that is said to cost around US$40 million and can seat up to 19 people, as his "guilty pleasure" and "big splurge". The Sultan of Brunei's private jet, a Boeing 747-400 and one of several in his fleet, is bedecked with solid gold washbasins and Lalique crystal. "The Bandit", a Boeing 767-33A owned by Russian oil magnet Roman Abramovich, has gold and chestnut decor with a banquet hall that can accommodate 30 people and an anti-ballistic defence system worth a cool couple of millions to boot.

There's love in the air too. Think Elvis Presley's Convair 880 jet airplane in the mid '70s, nicknamed Lisa Marie (after his wife), with faucets and washbasins made of gold and over 50 speakers.

In the land of the uber rich, where the oft-used mantra is "time is money", these "flying mansions" or "opulent hotels with wings" turned the private and business aviation space into a booming industry in the early 2000s, with jet deliveries hitting an all-time high of 1,313 units in 2008.

Post-global financial crisis, things went so far south they have yet to recover. Jets were sold off and orders slumped. Even today, businesses are finding themselves hard-pressed to justify what was viewed as unnecessary extravagance amid cost cuts, layoffs, and corporate failures.

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The number of business jet deliveries fell from 718 units in 2015 to 661 units in 2016, and are less than half what they were in 2008, based on data from the US-based General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA).

Forecasters are pointing to a recovery though, led by growth in new markets and sales of bigger and newer models. The market, one that was reportedly worth US$20 billion four years ago, is set to soar to a US$34 billion peak in three years.

The Asia Pacific's share of the business jet market has expanded from 5 per cent in 2008 to nearly 8 per cent last year.

Global Jet Capital, a provider of financing solutions for corporate aircraft, expects Asia will enjoy strong growth, and that as many as 900 mid to heavy private jets will be delivered in the region between 2016 and 2025.

Singapore appears to be a favoured nook for the ins and outs of the super rich, be it for those who own or charter jets for their travels, not least because business and private jets with valid permits can easily fly in and out of Seletar Airport - the hub for business aviation.

"The eco-system here is very good. Singapore is better than a lot of regional countries and there are globally well-known names in the MRO (maintenance, repair and overhaul) space... Gulfstream, Jet Aviation, Cessna, Bombardier, Hawker Pacific are all here. This is why we come here as our aircraft is super expensive," says one industry veteran.

There are 45 private jets (in the mid to heavy weight range) registered in Singapore as at March 2017, making it the seventh largest market in the region, according to Global Jet Capital. The jets range from US$25 million to US$50 million each and are longer range craft (the heavier the jet, the longer it can fly).

Singapore has more of such jets than Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand.

And here, the fleet is growing. Between 2012 and 2016, 12 business jets or 27 per cent of the overall fleet were purchased at an estimated cost of S$600 million.

"Singapore is a very exciting (business aviation) market for us. It has a consistently stable and strong economy," says David Settergren, Global Jet Capital's sales director of South-east Asia, adding that its strong focus is on larger private jets.

As the mid-size, large and long-range categories of jets make up around the bulk of business jets in Singapore, this could suggest a need to fly mostly long distance, said Hong Kong-based Asian Sky Group in its 2016 country report on Singapore's charter market.

Major events such as the Grand Prix F-1 and the ATP Women's Tennis finals held in Singapore havespiced up the charter market here, particularly among a clientele who enjoy "hassle-free block charter programmes", it added.

Singapore's growing reputation as a leading medical centre also brings rising numbers of "medical evacuation" cases, said Alex Khalil, Executive Jets Asia (EJA) Group's assistant manager of commercial and operations.

"Business has grown to include more medical evacuation cases, bringing HNWIs (high net worth individuals) from developing countries such as Indonesia, Bangladesh and Myanmar to Singapore for medical treatment," she said.

According to Ms Khalil, the cost to charter an aircraft is between US$4,500 and US$6,000 per hour depending on aircraft type and destination.

A private matter

While there is a lack of data showing how many Singaporeans own private jets in the country (the most widely known is tycoon and hotelier Ong Beng Seng) and this is largely because of the wealthy milieu's cloistered world, industry participants say most are owned by foreign individuals and corporations.

This might come as a surprise when in fact, Singapore has the third-highest number of billionaires in the Asia Pacific and sixth globally.

"The super rich Singaporeans are generally practical. They don't want to take a hit on the depreciation of the assets and so forth," said one manager of a private jet belonging to a Russian billionaire here, who declined to be named.

According to CM Hwang, managing partner at Aero Infinity, a boutique general aviation aircraft sales, brokerage and leasing company, less than 10 per cent of the jets parked in Singapore are owned privately by Singaporeans.

"The private jets parked at Seletar Aerospace Park are largely foreign-owned," he says. Many are registered under US , Cayman Islands, British Virgin Islands, or Australian civil registers. "If an owner is Singapore-based, the owner is likely to use one of these civil registrations for ease of passage and maintenance across international airspace," he adds. The same may also be said for the private jet charter space.

"Singaporean HNWIs (high net worth individuals) are not using private jet much because Singapore Airlines flies direct to many key cities," said EJA's Ms Khalil. She means First Class of course.

"Besides, the nature of their business does not require them to travel to destinations SIA does not fly to. Our clients are mostly HNWIs from other parts of Asia," she adds.

"My jet, my rules"

If the rich have their quirks, then there's no telling how bizarre it could get with the super rich.

A freelance flight attendant says she once flew with 30 falcons in an Airbus A330 owned by a Middle East tycoon. Falconry is the sport of hunting with falcons - the ultimate status symbol in the Middle East.

"They had hoods on. Their wings were tied. It's very common in the Gulf," she says, adding that they were very expensive pets that cost US$100,000 each.

On another occasion, a royal family member was smoking shisha, a popular Arabian custom, onboard the private jet while a flight attendant stood nearby with a fire extinguisher throughout the session. "That was very memorable," she says. "You can't do it anymore though as the rules prohibit it," she adds.

Then based in the Middle East for five years, she is back in Singapore on the same job now where she says pretty much nothing out of the ordinary happens. "I haven't seen such peculiarities here," she laughs.

One industry insider recounts a tale of a client from China who presented his daughter a jet as a 21st birthday gift. She had wanted to paint the plane pink but settled instead for a splash of her favourite colour, then months later decided she didn't want to fly in it anymore. Just like that, the plane was sold at a loss of millions of dollars with the father not batting an eyelid. (Haute damn.)

When East doesn't meet West

What the glitz of private air travel obscures, an industry veteran says, is that it's most often than not less for pleasure and more for business convenience. In Asia, however, there seems to be a higher tendency to "acquire and display" for an ego boost.

"In US and Europe, private jets are a tool for businesses. They don't count it as a luxury. They are always working. In Asia, on the other hand, it seems to be more about glamour," says Logan Ravishankar, chief executive of private jet operator MyJet Asia.

"Money brings you convenience. Convenience makes you happy," he said. Essentially, that means "you do the things you want to do, the way you want it, at the time you want it to be done".

Apart from wholly owning or chartering a jet, there is one other option that has gained traction abroad, called "fractional ownership", which essentially allows one to split the cost to buy a fraction of an aircraft. This prudent ownership concept is particularly popular in Europe and the US among those who want to avoid being tied down to assets that they plan to use infrequently that costs millions a year to upkeep.

But this part of the world hasn't greatly warmed up to it. "Asians don't like to share. It's a cultural thing," Mr Ravishankar remarks.

Singapore's jet habitat

It's easy to appreciate why Singapore is a favourite spot for private travellers. Seletar Airport requires no "slot filing" for jets with valid permits to fly in and out.

One can also land at Changi Airport but rules there make the process somewhat cumbersome. Since 2012, non-scheduled flights have had to apply for both slots and parking bays at Changi given the growth in commercial airline traffic. Prior to that, such flights could land and take off from Changi by filing a flight plan just hours earlier.

"If we need to fly long distance, for example to Europe, the plane needs a longer runway. So we have to go to Changi as the runway in Seletar is short. But Changi has slot and parking rules.

"When one buys a plane for tens of millions of dollars, they don't want to be told when they can fly," laments one private jet operator.

According to a Changi Airport Group (CAG) spokesman, Seletar now has 60 parking stands, nearly double from 32 previously. There are also five compact parking areas utilised by the ground handlers. Business aviation movements at Seletar have grown at a compounded annual growth rate of nearly 14 per cent from 2011 to 2016, according to CAG.

More is in store. A major facelift is underway for the no-frills Seletar Airport, Singapore's first international airport in the 1930s and now an integral part of the 320-hectare Seletar Aerospace Park. By end-2018, Seletar will have a spanking new S$50 million passenger terminal that can handle 700,000 passenger movements per annum, on both scheduled commercial and business aviation flights.

That's a step up from the two check-in counters, one security screening channel, one immigration counter, and maximum of 50 arriving or departing passengers every hour now.

The plane truth

"There are people who always fly business class and first class and those who always fly charter," says Stefan Wood, director at Singapore Air Charter.

"Even the Etihad suites, which is the closest airline to a private aircraft, is still limited to schedules and where the airline flies," says Mr Wood.

They can also be complementary. Nilesh Pattanayak, Bombardier Business Aircraft's Asia Pacific regional vice-president, says: "For example, our customers will take long courier flights on Singapore Airlines and connect to short courier using the business aircraft when in the region."

If one had the means and the luxury of choice, few things would beat the privilege of flying on one's own aircraft, in one's own time, and in complete privacy. Ultra-luxe hoteliers such as Aman and Four Seasons have begun to package "ultimate" vacations served by private jet.

At the other end of the spectrum, meanwhile, is the "Uberisation" of the private charter market in the US and Europe, hastened by falling prices and upstart operators. Scores of private jets descended on Jackson Hole, Wyoming and other spots in the US last weekend, filled with partymakers chasing the eclipse. (Parking was a bitch.)

In the upper echelons of the high net worth sphere, though, private air travel will always have a niche, as Singapore Air Charter's Mr Wood says. Have money, will travel.


Why go private?

The ultimate time machine

Dodge check-in queues and be at the airport mere minutes before flying. Upon arrival, it would take 10 minutes tops to get out of the plane and into the car. Private jets can also save up to 15 hours of flying time, zipping directly to a destination without connections.

High productivity

Meet and work uninterrupted on board with high-speed internet, email, satellite communications and wireless local area networks.

Privacy

Loath travelling with strangers? On a business aircraft, one would likely know everyone on board. Private conversations and confidential work are secure.

Flexibility

A business jet adapts its schedule to meet the needs of passengers. With a commercial aircraft, the passenger has to keep to the airline's schedule.

Smoother rides

A business aircraft can fly higher and faster than commercial aircraft, says Gulfstream Aerospace corporate communications director Heidi Fedak. Many business aircraft fly up to 51,000 ft, a good 10,000-15,000 ft higher than commercial liners. This puts business jets above airline traffic and adverse weather for a smoother ride.

Not glued to the seat

Passengers can move throughout the cabin, and many planes are configured with conference tables for meals and meetings, even staterooms that can be partitioned off with a bulkhead and pocket doors for privacy and rest, says Ms Fedak.

The extra mile

If your destination is off the beaten path, private jets can reach places that airlines do not serve.

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