SEATTLE — In early March, Boeing's biggest jet, the 747-8 Intercontinental, took off from Paine Field near here, its gleaming white livery shrouded in secrecy.
But the newest version of the airliner, which can carry 460 passengers, was not destined for a commercial airline. This particular model, the 747-VIP, was headed for a private customer in the Middle East believed to be the emir of Qatar.
Airbus, too, is about to deliver its own behemoth jetliner — the A380 double-decker — to a single customer this year, the Saudi prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the chairman of Kingdom Holding Company, a major investor in Citigroup. Ordered in 2007, it will be the most expensive personal jet, with a final price well in excess of $500 million, including the cost of outfitting it with one-of-a kind amenities. The original plans included a garage for two Rolls-Royces, a stable for horses and camels, a pen for hawks and a prayer room that rotates so it always points toward Mecca.
It is the ultimate call sign of the superrich: a big plane to flaunt their wealth while they conduct business above 40,000 feet.
Defying the economic slump, celebrities, corporate titans and Internet entrepreneurs in recent years have upgraded to bigger planes, with leather seats, plush bedrooms and opulent boardrooms. New billionaires in fast-growing countries like China, India, Russia and Nigeria are also seeking long-range planes that can serve hard-to-reach airports or provide direct service between far-flung cities.
"They have to buy longer-range airplanes. If you're flying from Mongolia to Nigeria, it's either a three-day journey flying commercial or a nine-hour flight on your jet," said Steve Varsano, an airplane broker who recently opened a retail store for corporate jets in London's Hyde Park Corner, an area popular with Russians, Gulf Arabs and other wealthy foreigners. "These frontiers markets have turned into powerful aircraft acquisition markets."
The trend has helped the industry weather the downturn. From 2007 through 2011, sales in the largest jets — those weighing more than 50,000 pounds — have grown by 23 percent to 200, registering just a small dip in 2009, according to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association. By contrast, shipments of the smallest planes have fallen 58 percent to 106 in the same period, while sales of medium-size jets have fallen 43 percent to 375.
"The people we deal with were not too much affected by the crisis," said Habib Fekih, the president of Airbus Corporate Jets.