On board Royal Jet
Just as the car reaches the familiar approaches to Abu Dhabi International Airport it peels off to the right, whispering down a tree-lined road I've never noticed before and quickly leaving behind the madding crowds of Terminals 1 and 3. Down this road travel three types of passenger: those heading for destinations such as Kabul, Peshawar and Khartoum via the remote and compact Terminal 2, oil workers commuting offshore on the helicopters or turboprop aircraft of Abu Dhabi Aviation - and those bound for altogether more exotic surroundings.
At first glance, there is little to distinguish the discreet entrance to the world of Royal Jet, the Abu Dhabi company named World's Leading Private Jet Charter three years running at the World Travel Awards. The understated glass doors at one end of the functional Abu Dhabi Aviation terminal appear almost as an afterthought. Then the car door opens and there's the first clue - a path of crimson extending right to the edge of the kerb.
You know you've arrived when your journey begins on a red carpet. Be warned, though:º step through the looking-glass and commercial flying will never be the same again. Inside, there are no crowds, no queues, no cafes and no shops - what, after all, do you sell to the man who has everything - and just a polite welcome from staff who magic you through the one-to-one immigration and security formalities with the practised ease of conjurers. Oh, and forget arriving at the airport two hours before your flight; 15 minutes will do nicely.
The departure lounge is comfortable but understated; neither try-too-hard modern nor bombastically baroque, it is merely serene in the Arabic style. After all, it has to cater for all tastes; on these plush sofas have sat captains of industry, celebrities and even the occasional head of state. In addition to Royal Jet's own flights, this is one of the busiest VIP terminals in the region, handling up to 300 movements a month of private aircraft coming or going to the UAE or making fuelling stops en route to destinations such as South Africa or Australia. Occasionally, it can get busier; for last year's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix there were more than 300 movements in a single weekend.
Not that many spend much time here; most arrive at the terminal and board their aircraft without breaking step and now I'm following suit and heading for my second scarlet carpet of the day. The rich and powerful, I guess, are used to this, but there's something about climbing the red-carpeted steps to a private jet that makes me want to giggle, and perhaps wave imperiously to the imaginary crowd of fans who have turned up to see me off. I don't, but I do take each tread as slowly as I can, savouring the moment. It might be only a few millimetres thick, but a red carpet has a way of making you feel taller.
As does Zoe Richards, the 32-year-old British flight attendant who welcomes me to her world - the consummate luxury of a Boeing Business Jet, the top-of-the-range aircraft in Royal Jet's fleet - and with great skill and charm makes me feel that, for now at least, it is my world. Royal Jet operates a fleet of 11 aircraft, ranging from a Learjet 60, capable of carrying up to five passengers anywhere in the MENA region, up to six BBJs - the largest single flight of the definitive long-distance business jet in the world.
The BBJs can carry up to 52 guests non-stop to anywhere within a nine-hour radius, and at the top of these steps is Royal Jet's ultimate configuration - BBJ A6-DFR, a veritable home from home for up to 22 people, frequently used by corporate clients and wealthy Gulf families. At first, it's a little disorientating. There are no overhead luggage bins, no seat numbers and, most importantly, no other people - or their children. It's an odd place for existentialist thoughts but if, as Sartre had it, hell is other people, then welcome to air-travel heaven.
I can, of course, sit anywhere I like - in the private, glass-walled office, pretending to work, in one of the four "traditional" VIP seats, watching a movie on one of the large flat-screen televisions, or on any one of the six divans scattered throughout the two lounges. Each of the divans can be converted into a bed, but I bagsy the master bedroom aft, complete with exclusively sourced towels, robes and bedding, en suite shower and toilet (there are two of each on board) and queen-size bed (flying head first, in case you're wondering). Now this is what you call a private suite. After this, there's a danger that even the first-class cabin on the upper deck of an Emirates A380 will appear as little more than a well-appointed veal crate.
Sadly, I'm not actually going anywhere, but this aircraft is itself a destination. But if this were a real flight and I wanted a meal - and, if the beautifully presented and tasty canapés that appear before me are anything to go by, I most certainly would - I could enjoy the skills of one of Royal Jet's two personal chefs, a world-first innovation. But which one? Again, one is spoiled for choice: Briton Mark Emmett, whose signature dish is kaffir lime tart with honey cream, or Frenchman Daniel Dejean, whose pièce de résistance is roasted lobster fillet with fresh mango and ginger sauce? Decisions. It's even tougher at the top than I suspected.
It goes without saying that you can eat and drink what you like, when you like, watch any film that takes your fancy and expect to find your favourite magazines, biscuits and even flight attendants on board - Royal Jet keeps a record of the preferences of its regular clients, some of whom spend up to 30 days at a time on these aircraft. And forget trolleys and foldaway lap tables. Here one dines at one of two beautifully polished wooden tables, each capable of hosting a sizeable family gathering.
For the busy executive or tycoon, however, the true benefit of private flying lies not in the quality of services and facilities - after all, at this level, five-star surroundings are par for the course - but in the luxury of time. "Time and money is the key issue," says Shane O'Hare, Royal Jet's president and CEO. For many of his company's clients, travelling by private jet is not a perk but a financially justifiable necessity.
"If you look at some of the people and groups flying with us their time is absolutely critical. As highly paid or high-net-worth individuals, whatever the purpose of their meeting there are very high stakes, so in the overall scheme of things the relative cost of private jet travel is extremely low." For such people, the true luxury is being able to fly exactly when and where they want, booking a flight with as little as a few hours' notice, taking off within minutes of arriving at the airport and, if they wish, changing their mind about the destination mid-flight. "In the private jet sphere the customer owns the aircraft for the flight and dictates exactly what has to be done."
One does, of course, have to be impossibly wealthy to enjoy this sort of thing on a regular basis, but don't despair. With a bit of planning, a degree of flexibility, you too could upgrade from first class to ultimate class. If it's a one-off treat you are looking for - for friends, family or business clients, perhaps - Royal Jet does have the occasional special package, such as a champagne breakfast flight for six to the Bahrain Grand Prix, on board a Lear 60, from $10,000, (US$1,666 a head) or the recent Eid excursions for 15 passengers to destinations such as Beirut, Amman or the Maldives on board BBJ for $75,000 ($5,000 each).
But there is also another way to make private jet travel a part of your itinerary at a fraction of the true cost. The secret boils down to this: because jet charter is frequently a one-way operation, an estimated one third of all private jets in the air are flying without any passengers on board. Master the art of exploiting the empty leg and remain flexible about when and where you fly and a cut-rate jet-set lifestyle could be yours.
Winkling out bargains on your own, however, is almost impossible; what you need is a broker, someone who has access to the fleets of operators around the world. Someone like Claudia Ferreira, in fact. Claudia, from Portugal, is a former Emirates first-class flight attendant who has spent the past three years running the brokerage side of Royal Jet's operation - finding solutions for clients unable to board Royal Jet's own, frequently booked aircraft - and from her terminal she can tap into a world of aviation possibilities.
Though money is clearly no object for most of Claudia's clients, some of whom request - and get - a flight within hours, "Quite a lot await the opportunity of an empty leg. We also have first-time charters, new clients who want to try a private jet and look specifically for empty legs." The cost? That depends on many variables, but shop around and reductions of from 50 to 75 per cent can be found.
And don't be shy to ask. Even the rich like to bargain-hunt, says Eymeric Segard, the CEO of Geneva-based brokerage LunaJets, which has access to the fleets of 260 operators around Europe, the Middle East and Russia. Timing is important - don't bother asking about empty legs more than a couple of weeks before you want to fly. "At about two weeks, the operator starts getting nervous that they haven't found anybody for the empty leg. At that point we can go to them and negotiate." In May, LunaJets arranged for a party of three adults and three children to hitch a ride on an empty Challenger 850, bound from Ras al Khaimah to Vienna, which dropped them off at Cote d'Azur Airport, Nice, for Dh88,000.
This was an exceptionally good deal: first-class tickets for all six on board an Emirates Airbus A330-200 would have cost a total of approximately Dh150,000. How often, though, can the company find a flight that betters first-class prices? "It depends," says Eymeric, "on the group size, the popularity of the route and your flexibility. From Wagadugu to the middle of nowhere, then maybe once a year. But if you ask me for Dubai to London, or Geneva, then there are so many flights I can modify."
It also pays to study the migratory habits of the jet set. A few days before Ramadan a flock of empty jets typically leaves the UAE, heading to pick up Emiratis who want to come home for the holy month, "so if you want to go the other way then, yes, there is plenty of choice". Normally, chartering a private jet capable of carrying a party of 10 non-stop to the UK - a Gulfstream G550 or a Challenger 604 - would cost between Dh294,000 and Dh342,000 (£51,000 to £59,500), making first class the better deal. But, says Eymeric, "we can go all the way down to €25,000 [Dh122,400, or £21,250]" - for a party of 10, 38 per cent cheaper than Diamond First and barely Dh2,000 more expensive than Pearl Business.
Go on, spoil yourself; it would be churlish not to. Step on that red carpet and your head will already be in the clouds.