Jumbo rich now have the airplanes to match
TUESDAY, OCTOBER 17, 2006

NEW YORK The tremendously rich really are different not only from you and me but also from the merely rich. For one thing, some of them have nice airplanes.

This is not about the presumed titans of the private jet universe like the mighty Gulfstream G5s or Global Expresses, whose occupants can leap continents and oceans at high speed and in plush comfort, without all the inconveniences of commercial airports, airline schedules and, well, strangers.

This is about big, long-haul airliners that are converted to private jets and can carry not only pampered passengers and their entourages, but also, in some cases, their Rolls Royces and racehorses. These are specially equipped privately owned jumbo jets - the kind that normally carry as many 300 to 400 passengers but are reconfigured with interiors designed for the enjoyment of, at most, a couple of dozen.

"There are around 39 Boeing 747s with interiors configured for VIP use in the world, and many 757s and 767s, an MD-11, and two 777s," said Aaga Dünhaupt, a manager for Lufthansa Technik, the Hamburg-based subsidiary of Lufthansa Airlines that designs and builds the interiors for new and used (or "pre-owned" as they like to say in both the luxury car and luxury jet markets) airliners for individual or corporate use.

It is a market in which many owners progressively upgrade - starting out, for example, with a Boeing 737 and then eventually moving up to the greater space, range and luxury of a specially designed Boeing 757, 767 or even a jumbo 747.

Tuesday, at the National Business Aviation Association convention and trade show in Orlando, Florida, Lufthansa Technik planned to announce a new partnership to market its services in still another luxury high-fliers' niche. The company is going to introduce its VIP designs for outfitting one of the most eagerly anticipated new long-range aircraft in years, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which lists for about $150 million and up.

Boeing has more than 400 orders for the aircraft, the first deliveries of which are expected in 2008.

As a commercial airliner, the 787 will seat 210 to 330 passengers, depending on the airline that flies it.

As a private jet, at least under a new design being introduced by Lufthansa Technik at the business-aviation trade show, it will have 35 seats - 32 of which can also be used as single lie-flat seats or queen-size beds, and seven of which can be converted to double beds, according to Jennifer Urbaniak, a Lufthansa spokeswoman.

Even though the airplane will not be available for several years, industry experts say marketing interior design plans now makes sense because there is always great interest in the next big thing in the highest end of the luxury private jet market.

Ordering now ensures getting into the front of the line for a private 787, fully loaded.

PrivatAir, a Swiss company that markets charter and individual flights on privately configured big planes, is definitely interested in the 787 and in having it outfitted in true luxury, said Greg Thomas, chief executive.

"We've signed a letter of intent and are still in negotiations about the finer points of the contract," Thomas said.

PrivatAir, which specializes in long- haul VIP flights, manages a fleet of 50 aircraft, including a 757 that is chartered by various governments worldwide for special purposes. The 757 is also used three or four times a year for so-called air-cruises - "around-the-world trips for 21 days basically by retired Americans," he said. Those trips can cost from $50,000 to $70,000 a person.

Such planes are also used for special business purposes. "We've done movie launches," Thomas said. "We did the launches of 'Oceans 11' and 'Oceans 12' and 'King Kong,'" he said.

Thomas said that PrivatAir had ordered a 767 aircraft, and expected delivery late this year as the demand for private flights in big airplanes grows.

But airliner-size jets are also used by individual business people. Among them is Willie Gary, who grew up in a family of migrant workers in Florida, but is now one of the most prominent U.S. liability attorneys. Weary of wasting valuable time away from his family in commercial airports and eager to have the space to conduct business in the air, Gary bought a Boeing 737 several years ago and had it outfitted as a private jet. He also owns a 16-seat Gulfstream G2 that he refers to as his "second plane."

Gary had been planning to invest in a bigger private 757, but now he says he is ready to kick the tires of the 787 Dreamliner once the plane is on the market.

"On the 737, we can take depositions," Gary said. "We have meetings and settlement conferences. It gives me the luxury of getting in and getting out and moving on. I've touched down in as many as five states in a day." But, he added: "I'm not going to keep the 737 forever. I'm a goal setter, and I'm always looking for something new."

Anticipating strong growth in private demand for the long-haul, airliner-size planes, Lufthansa Technik says it is setting up a new unit especially to design 787 interiors for clients.

Its 787 interiors have been developed in a partnership with Andrew Winch, who is best known for designing top- luxury interiors for big yachts.

Over the years, Lufthansa Technik has done the interior designs for 12 jumbo 747s, Dünhaupt said. A 747 purchased "green," that is with basically a bare interior, costs about $180 million, he said. "And then, if you really want that 747 to be a full-blown VIP aircraft, with all the VIP luxuries, you can spend up to $50 million more on the interior," he said.

Lufthansa Technik is now working on preliminary designs for the much- delayed Airbus A380, the airplane that will be the biggest in the sky once it is available.

Besides its huge size that will allow for even more luxury, the A380 has one feature that may appeal to the most status-conscious of owners, who may be traveling with underlings. That feature harks back to the days of ocean liners, where social classes were physically segregated.

"The A380 will offer a chance to separate the senior VIPs from the junior VIPs because you have two decks and they can be kept apart," Dünhaupt said.