Like most people, except perhaps the children of oligarchs and high-ranking diplomats, my first memories of air travel involve waiting in line at the check-in counter and squeezing into the middle seat of a plane. Not that there was anything wrong with that. It was simply how I always imagined the rest of the population flew anyway. A seat in Economy Class never felt like a downgrade or punishment, rather, as a default mode of travel for everyone else. No issues there. I was only too happy to enjoy the privilege of flying instead of traveling by sea, god forbid. It was the destination that mattered more, after all, and not just about how one got there. If the airline offered a warm meal and a movie, that was more than fine with me.
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But we all lose our innocence — and ignorance — eventually. For air travel, it starts with your first upgrade to Business Class. This is your first experience sitting in a wide seat that reclines flat for sleeping, a decent pair of headphones that won’t slip off or hurt your ears, and a cabin crew who genuinely act like they’re happy to serve you. And just like that your standards begin to change and soon enough the window seat you once fought over feels cramped, and the plastic utensils and pre-cooked meal you never used to complain about seem so crappy. Then it’s downhill from there. You try complaining to the cabin stewardess but she doesn’t seem to care. It becomes all too clear to you why only luxury travelers brag with the phrase: “the journey is the destination,” because it surely doesn’t apply to folks flying coach.
Time passes, and if you’re lucky, your company, your accumulated miles, or your personal finances allow you to book a Business Class ticket more frequently. You try not to be smug about it, but you can’t help getting a kick out of checking in at a special counter, or boarding the plane ahead of others. Indeed, you find it hard to hide the satisfaction in turning left at the aircraft door instead of right. Life is good in Business Class, or so you believe, until you accidentally wander into First Class while looking for the toilet in the dark. After an embarrassing episode with the flight crew, you return to your seat disappointed knowing that Business Class is more like second class, really. Now you realize that luxury is relative. Everything is better in First: the seats are wider, the screens are larger, the wine list is fancier, and the toilet, yes the same one you inadvertently walked into, might even come with a shower as I recently discovered.
In the 15 years I’ve covered the travel beat I’ve been fortunate to experience flying in some of the world’s most awarded First and Business Class cabins. In those voyages I’ve had cocktails while standing at a bar, cozied up in enormous leather seats upholstered by Poltrona Frau while being served grand cru wine and caviar, and enjoyed all sorts of amenities you’d only find in a five-star hotel suite.
But though my heart still skips a beat each time I see an F or J booking code printed on my ticket, and whenever I’m told to turn left at the aircraft door, nothing quite beats the thrill of flying private in a Gulfstream.
There are business jets and then there is Gulfstream. An aircraft that’s in a class of its own — the gold standard of private business jets. You can Google it online and check out all the specs for yourself, but maybe you’d be more impressed with the list of owners of Gulfstream jets which include the likes of Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Ralph Lauren, Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg. In the Philippines, tycoon Enrique Razon, the chairman of the global port operator ICTSI, owns a small fleet of his own.
Gulfstream jets are the preferred choice of the global elite not only for the American company’s reputation for luxury, but for the industry-leading safety record, reliability, flying altitude and speed of its planes as well — all thanks to the sophisticated military-grade avionics on board and the patented wing design of their aircraft. And because they’re more advanced than anything else, Gulfstream jets are also the most expensive on the market. The starting price for the top-of the line G650 model is a whopping 65 million US dollars excluding the cost of operation and maintenance.
Because they’re more advanced than anything else, Gulfstream jets are also the most expensive on the market. The starting price for the top-of the line G650 model is a whopping 65 million US dollars
The good news is you don’t have to own a Gulfstream to travel the same way jetsetters like Bill Gates and Ralph Lauren do. Asian Aerospace, the official distributor of Gulfstream in the Philippines and the owner of the largest fleet of Gulfstream jets in the country, leases their aircraft through their private charter service AirTaxi.ph.
It was while filming a series of television features on AirTaxi.ph to different destinations in the Philippines where I had the chance to fly on three of the Gulfstream jets they operate: the compact 10-seater G200, which was recently replaced with another Gulfstream model, and the larger 14-seater G4 and G450 aircraft. It was not the first time I’ve flown private as I used to tag along with my father in his company’s tiny Beechcraft King Air turbo-prop, but it was my first time on a legendary Gulfstream jet — and I could tell the difference immediately.
The first thing you notice about flying private, however, has nothing to do with the brand of aircraft. Flying private is the ultimate travel luxury because you alone determine when you want to fly and who you want to fly with. You also get to customize your in-flight menu, entertainment options and seating configuration during the voyage (i.e. seats facing each other for chatting with others or arranged fully flat for sleeping? It’s your pick.). Boarding the aircraft is at a private hangar or VIP lounge where all security, customs, immigration and quarantine procedures are dispensed with. Not even First Class ticket holders on commercial flights can expect this privilege.
The first thing you notice about flying private, however, has nothing to do with the brand of aircraft. Flying private is the ultimate travel luxury because you alone determine when you want to fly and who you want to fly with.
“When you fly with us, all you have to do is arrive 10 minutes before your flight, just go to the lounge and, when you’re ready, just board the plane. You save maybe two hours before your flight compared to flying commercial. And instead of waiting another 30 minutes for your baggage, over here, our guys give it to you in the same shape you gave it to us, no damage, no tampering,” explains Paj Rodriguez, the Executive Vice-President of Asian Aerospace and AirTaxi.ph.
The level of convenience, luxury and exclusivity varies depending on the private charter service you fly with, but the experience in a Gulfstream jet — like the newly delivered G450 aircraft of AirTaxi.ph — is what will set you apart from other passengers flying private. For one, you don’t need to crouch or lean over while standing inside the plane the way you would on other business aircraft, like the more affordable turbo-prop models of Beechcraft and Cessna, or the ever-popular Lear jet, for that matter. All Gulfstream jets offer a feature they call a Full Stand-up Cabin where, just like larger commercial aircraft, you can stand, or walk to and from your seat, without worrying about bumping your head on the ceiling. It’s a small detail, yes, but industry-leading headroom such as this makes a huge difference when moving around the plane.
Another standout feature you encounter with Gulfstream jets is the elegant interiors of the aircraft — designed more like a Bentley or Rolls Royce limousine, actually, with large and supple hand-stitched leather seats and panels with solid aluminum and lacquered hardwood trimming. To be fair, other aircraft brands offer customizable interiors as an option to clients, but with Gulfstream, luxuries like these come standard.
Unique to Gulfstream as well is the oversized oval picture window design that allows more available light inside the cabin — and wider views of the scenery outside if, and when, you want it. The applied noise-suppression technology reduces engine roar for better naps and clearer conversations on board.
What clients are really paying for in a Gulfstream, however, is the phenomenal speed and stability made possible by the patented aircraft design and class-leading engine horsepower. I won’t get technical here, but the plane’s ability to climb higher than most aircraft reduces the chances of encountering bad weather and the crowded commercial jet routes at lower altitudes. Simply put, a Gulfstream jet allows you to get to your destination safer and faster. And because you arrive ahead of the rest — and in a Gulfstream, no less, you attract the awe and stares of other passengers on the ground as an added bonus. If that matters to you, of course, which it really shouldn’t once you decide to fly private because the ability to travel anonymously in a private jet is the one other reason clients avoid commercial flights to begin with.
Apart from the high cost of ownership or leasing fees, there’s only one other downside I can think of when it comes to flying private in a Gulfstream: how can one ever go back to flying commercial again? If that sounds presumptuous (or snobbish), don’t get me wrong. Except for those rare invitations to fly private, I continue — and will continue — to travel with commercial airlines. And on any class available to me. Still, I can’t help reminding myself that, indeed, ignorance is bliss.
Photographs by David Celdran except for photo of G450 interiors.