© Miriam Migliazzi und Mart Klein

Flying palaces

  • TEXT ANDREAS SPAETH
  • ILLUSTRATIONS MIRIAM MIGLIAZZI, MART KLEIN

Private jets are all the rage.  Some super-rich even splash out on proper wide-body planes. Then they spend another fortune creating a bespoke interior

The plane was black as night except for a giant, snow-white rabbit on the tail. Before commissioning the paint job, Playboyfounder Hugh Hefner had to ask the U.S. government for permission because, normally, the color black is reserved for military planes. But then again, what’s normal in the world of the super-rich, where the race to set new records is the order of the day: more space, more opulence, more ego – and even bigger status symbols. Of these, none is more impressive than a private, extravagantly outfitted wide-body jet.

Hefner’s Big Bunny – a McDonnell Douglas DC-9 originally built to carry more than 100 passengers, and bought by Hefner in 1969 – had the finest interior that money could buy: It transformed into a disco, complete with a lightshow. A private staircase led up to the boss’s chambers that boasted an elliptical water bed covered with a bedspread made of Tasmanian opossum fur. Jet Bunnies in black leather miniskirts took care of the inflight needs of prominent passengers including Elvis Presley. In fact, the “King of Rock ’n’ Roll” was so enamored of the plane that he commissioned his own long-range jet in 1975. The four-engine Convair 880 was christened Lisa Marie, after his daughter, and equipped with 52 loudspeakers and a video console. But the early days of airborne decadence ended abruptly: Hefner’s money started to run out, and he was forced to sell his flying bunny cage in 1976. Elvis died in 1977, and his airplane has been standing in the garden of his villa in Graceland in Memphis ever since.

© Miriam Migliazzi und Mart Klein

 These days, it’s men like property mogul Donald Trump who tend to splurge on flying palaces. The sinks and seat buckles in Trump’s hundred million dollar Boeing 757 are made of 24-karat gold. However, most people who own private wide-body jets are somewhat more discreet. ­Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page have turned their Boeing 767-200 into a party plane. Rumor has it, though, that they have set their sights on the new 747-8 jumbo jet.

The most reliable customers for private jet interiors are royal family members from the Middle East, and potentates. Prince Al-waleed bin Talal Al Saud is a perfect example. The 60-year-old Saudi is worth 20 billion dollars, and he owns an entire fleet of private jets, including an Airbus A321 and a Boeing 747-400 – aircraft that usually carry several hundred passengers. Few people have ever seen the interior of Alwaleed’s luxury jet, and few aviation secrets are as well kept. But once in a while, a potentate will allow Joe public to peek into their world. Prince Alwaleed hired a film crew and personally showed them around his airborne palace. Photographer Nick Gleis was even allowed to take pictures. In fact, he has photographed 900 private jet interiors. “The owners aren’t doing it to show off,” he explains, “but because they want a record of what the cabin looks like.”

© Miriam Migliazzi und Mart Klein
© Miriam Migliazzi und Mart Klein

 For ordinary mortals, who associate aircraft cabins with being tightly crammed into a small space, these pictures take your breath away. What a contrast to a center row: the throne seat Alwaleed has plonked into the middle of the cabin, surrounded by swank leather sofas, his national flag and his company flag. The continuous lines created by the lighting and the furnishing nearly mask the fact that you are sitting on a plane. Ostentatious, too, the gold-rimmed porcelain and crystal. With 330 square meters of usable space, the cabin has room for even more extravagance. Word has it that a concert hall is planned.

But who is responsible for building these luxury cabins? Lufthansa Technik in Hamburg is a global market leader for VIP and private jet interiors. “The Boeing 747-8 and the 777 models have recently grown in popularity,” says Jörg Löwes, technical sales manager for the VIP division at Lufthansa Technik. “The trend is toward bigger and bigger planes, and the price tag for a custom interior is in the three-figure millions.”

More space, opulence, ego: Private jets are the ultimate status symbol

In return, customers get extras such as golden sinks and Lalique crystal lamps. “Clients often ask us to replicate elements from their palaces on board, or the leather seats of their Bentleys,” Löwes reveals. They also often commission exclusive designers. The current trend, says Löwes, are “platinum-plated, matte surfaces, exotic materials like leather, or those with ecological characteristics.” Fish-skin fabric is all the rage. “Eco-chic has become fashionable, even among this clientele,” the expert observes. “Texture and look are more exclusive than ever before.”

A German flight captain who wishes to remain anonymous, describes his experience: “I flew a jumbo jet belonging to a ruling family. They had a small whirlpool that doubled as a shower, and a private cinema that was installed in the nose of the plane beneath us. The bass loudspeakers always used to make the cockpit shake.” He often undertook long-distance flights because the sheik had forgotten something or other. “One time, after arriving in the United States, he realized that he had left his slippers at the palace. So back we went to get them.” The captain also regularly took the women of the family on shopping trips to Paris, New York or Los Angeles, just for lipstick, sometimes.

 

© Miriam Migliazzi und Mart Klein