When Miami Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga used to fly in style, his Gulfstream jet had room for only a dozen or so guests. Now his private jet of choice fits more than twice that many passengers in a cabin that would seat almost 150 as a commercial airliner.
Whether flying to one of his team's road games or hopping over the Atlantic to treat his buddies to a golfing tour in Ireland, the billionaire businessman is among a growing number of corporate executives and uber-rich A-listers who have gotten hooked on flying in the comfort of their very own, very large planes modeled after the aircraft flown by commercial airlines.
Huizenga doesn't consider his $41-million Boeing Business Jet a luxurious toy. He sees it as a sound investment that's paid off with a generous boost in business productivity.
"I had six public companies at one time," Huizenga said. "The employees, the management team - they get so much more done in a shorter amount of time. ... I realize it's expensive, but I think you make it up because you get more deals done, you do more things in a given week than you would otherwise."
In the first nine months of this year, worldwide shipments of business jets jumped more than 20 percent over the same period last year to nearly 630 aircraft, according to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association.
Boeing Co. and Airbus SAS make the largest business jets on the market, modeling them off narrow-body aircraft - in Boeing's case, the 737, for Airbus, the A318, A319 and A320.
Industry insiders say VIP jet sales have heated up in the past few years as an improving global economy has pulled commercial airlines out of the industrywide slump that followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The improving economy has forced business leaders to fly more often and over longer distances than in the past.
"If you're an executive and you need to visit several sites ... especially today with all the security hassles, it could easily take you a couple days to visit a couple of places," said David Velupillai, a marketing manager for Airbus' executive and private aviation unit. "But in a biz jet, you could do both in the same day."
VIP jets come with larger cabins than their commercial counterparts and are fitted with auxiliary fuel tanks that can almost double their flying range. Customers buy them in "green" condition - no walls, ceiling or carpeting, no seats or galleys - then send them off to completion centers, which often spend a year outfitting the interiors to the buyer's liking.
Common layouts include bedrooms and gold-plated bathroom fixtures. Many are decked out with top-of-the-line entertainment systems and high-speed Internet connections, or dining room and coffee tables so finely polished they shine like mirrors.
Big VIP jets
Boeing Co. and Airbus SAS sell the largest private planes on the market today. They're based on the companies' single-aisle, narrow-body planes: for Boeing, the 737-700, 737-800 and the 737-900ER; for Airbus, the A318, A319 and A320.
Boeing: Boeing Business Jets come in three models. The smallest, the BBJ, typically seats up to 19 people and goes for about $48-million in "green condition" without finished interiors. Customers generally spend about $15-million to have the planes completed. The BBJ2 costs $58-million, and the largest, the BBJ3, which launched this year, costs about $68-million. Those two models seat anywhere from 20 to 60 people.
Airbus: Airbus' most popular model, the Airbus Corporate Jet, is based on the A319, seats about 20-50 people and costs about $55-million finished. The A320 Prestige, the largest model available, seats about 20-60 passengers and costs roughly $65-million. The company's newest offering, the A318 Elite, comes with a standardized cabin that seats 14 or 18 passengers and starts out at about $45-million finished.
Sources: Boeing, Airbus, Associated Air Center