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-V.I.P., 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.
While the market has traditionally been dominated by American buyers, today international customers account for more than half of jet sales.
Airbus, the European plane manufacturer, recently unveiled an interior concept for Asian buyers of the corporate version of its A320 called Phoenix. The design features red hues, Asian patterns and a large round table, “the focus of Asian family life,” according to an Airbus brochure.
“A lot of wealth is being created in the emerging markets, in places like India, and that’s what we are targeting,” said Rod Williams, the vice president of marketing for Bombardier Business Aircraft.
Luxury comes at a cost. Prices range from about $31 million for a Bombardier Global 5000 to $65 million for the Gulfstream G650, which will be released this year. Airbus lists a price of $68 million for its smallest single-aisle A318 to about $245 million for the twin-aisle A350, which is under development. The company lists its new A380 double-decker at $389.9 million before any upgrades. In all, manufacturers sold 200 large jets in 2011, including 17 Boeing and Airbus private planes.
Making up only a small share of the market, the largest jets carry a rare glamour that few can afford. Google’s founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, bought a secondhand Boeing 767 in 2005 and turned it into their private plane, with two staterooms and a dining room. It has since been spotted in Cyprus, Saint Martin and Genoa, Italy. John Travolta flies his own vintage Boeing 707, which he parks in his backyard.
As planes have become bigger and fancier, their interiors have also changed greatly, incorporating the luxurious amenities once found only on private yachts. The owner of one Boeing private jet painted a copy of the Sistine Chapel on its ceiling, while one has a library aboard. Another insisted on mounting a sculpture of his horse in the cabin of his jet. Many have pianos, home theaters or saunas aboard.
“When I started in the business, around 1983, the interiors of a business jet were done by engineers who just put seats in a plane,” said Jacques Pierrejean, a French designer who works on cabins of commercial and private jets, as well as yachts. “Today, some private planes are more like second homes that fly.”
“The biggest problem we have today is finding television screens that are big enough,” Mr. Pierrejean said. “Planes are becoming bigger but screens are not.”
Digital technology abounds. Satellite television, wireless Internet and teleconferencing tools can all be controlled seamlessly with mobile devices and apps.
“There used to be no chiller to store your wine bottle, and even the cup holders were rudimentary, like those you would find in American automobiles,” said Howard Guy, the co-founder of Design Q, a British agency that designs high-end interiors for cars, yachts and private jets.
Lufthansa Technik, among the largest airplane maintenance and interior design centers, says that its V.I.P. jets — many destined for heads of state — also have better sound insulation, with cabin noise levels reduced to around 65 decibels, compared with 80 for a passenger aircraft. (That is the difference between an electric shaver and a lawn mower.)
Still, there are limits to the features than can be installed in private jets, which are subject to stringent airworthiness standards.
“Not everything can fly,” says Walter Heerdt, the senior vice president for marketing and sales at Lufthansa Technik. “We will not install a swimming pool or a fireplace. That is not possible.”