Billionaires Flying High in Airbus Jets

When buying a car or decorating a home, practical-minded people worry about maximising the future resale value. So too, it seems, do billionaires buying private jets that can cost between $US87 million ($112 million) to an upper range of $US200 million-plus.

"The smarter customers won't do black or red walls [in an aircraft] just like you probably wouldn't in your home," Airbus Corporate Jets marketing director David Velupillai said during a visit to Sydney on Thursday. "Because when it comes time to sell it, it is going to be harder to sell. That is why you will often see business jets have a neutral colour cabin. Beige is very widespread. Because the smarter customers are thinking ahead to that one day they will sell it."

Since the mid-1980s Airbus has sold 170 corporate jets, which are modified versions of the same A320 and A330 family aircraft flown by commercial airlines. The customer base is relatively evenly split between individuals, companies and governments. The individual market for the jets, which compete against offerings from Boeing, Gulfstream and Bombardier is comprised of a single demographic: billionaires.

The top markets for Airbus include China, the Middle East and Russia. It has yet to sell any of its corporate jets to individuals in Australia, although politician Clive Palmer, miner Gina Rinehart and logistics king Lindsay Fox own models by other manufacturers.

Airbus and rival Boeing dominate the upper-end of the private jet spectrum. Buying these aircraft is a very time-consuming proposition. Mr Velupillai said if a customer ordered one immediately, a narrowbody ACJ319 – a modified version of the A319 used by airlines – would not be delivered for another 18 months to two years. A widebody ACJ330, which could fly to Los Angeles or Dubai non-stop from Sydney, would not be delivered for two to two and a half years.

Airbus has introduced special interiors packages for the time-poor billionaire that does not want every little item on the jet to be customised. But for those that want a fully customised luxurious plane, almost any request can be fulfilled, whether it be gold-plated taps in the bathroom or extremely rare leather. "The lead time for that leather is the time it takes for a cow to be born," Mr Velupillai said of that bespoke request. "It comes from a special part of the Pyrenees. This special part of the Pyrenees is an area where there aren't any brambles and things that can tear the skin of the cow so you get a nice piece of leather. So people go to incredible lengths to get that kind of stuff."

Perhaps surprisingly, the private jets don't tend to contain anything more exotic than a bedroom, shower or bar. "These customers are not looking for the exotic," Mr Velupillai said. "They are not looking for saunas and gyms. They are looking for a way to take their lifestyle on the ground into the air. They are looking to take their luxury apartment or their luxury villa into the air. They are looking to take their office into the air."

There are, however, certain special considerations that must be made due to the unique environment which requires all of the cabin interiors receive certification from regulators. Lighter materials are better because they will reduce fuel burn and give the aircraft a greater range. The materials should not be able to burn easily or produce toxic emissions in the unlikely event of a crash landing. The centre of gravity is also important to ensure the aircraft can fly safely. And just as consumer confidence affects whether middle-class consumers feel comfortable buying a car or house, it also can be an important factor in the private jet market. "Just like you and I who are nervous about spending money when things are a little uncertain, you could see a billionaire doing the same thing, saying 'I'll keep my existing jet for a couple of years until things have settled down,'" Mr Velupillai said.

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