It seemed like business as usual when a customer said he wanted to hire a plane for two U.S. bound passengers -- until the luggage arrived.
Two busloads of luggage made it look like the passengers, two women, were permanently relocating, said Yury Tiptsov, commercial director of Biznes-Aviatsia, a company that runs a small fleet of jets to fly senior executives domestically and abroad.
The flight was delayed by five hours to load only half of the bags into the Gulfstream 5, Tiptsov said. The rest had to stay.
Clients generally hire jets when they want privacy, freedom from the regular flight timetable or to head to small towns not serviced by commercial airliners, Tiptsov said. Such flights take place increasingly often, fueled by the growth of the economy, he said.
Business jets run by Russian companies range from refitted Yak-40s and Tu-134s to foreign-made brands such as Hawkers from the United States, Falcons from France and Pilatuses from Switzerland.
Owners typically register their foreign-made jets abroad because of huge aircraft import taxes that reach 40 percent, said Vladimir Lebedev, president of the National Business Aviation Association. The government is reducing the tax by 10 percent, effective Oct. 16, and plans to reduce it an additional 10 percent in six months.
The jets bear European airline flags, but the planes belong to Russians, an Arab and a resident of one of the Baltic states, the names of which Tiptsov did not disclose.
The company is unhampered by the law, which states that foreign-registered jets cannot stay in the country for longer than 14 days, but can return immediately for another two weeks. "The jets fly back and forth every day, anyway," Tiptsov said.
If they are overbooked, they lease jets from other operators, Tiptsov said.
For a domestic flight, it typically takes no more than three hours to get clearance from aviation authorities, the Federal Air Navigation Service, Tiptsov said. For an international flight, arrangements can take up to four hours, he said.
But Vasily Pasetchnik, vice president of the London-based NetJets Europe, warned that the authorities could always delay flights by without breaking any rules. The Federal Air Navigation Service has five business days to allow a flight, he said.
In just one day last month, the federal service denied flight permits for at least 15 flights because the carriers gave short notice, Pasetchnik said. "No one can guarantee that it will be shorter than five days," he said.
The requirement to clear flights with the authorities so long in advance is endemic to Russia while in Europe, it takes NetJets takes no longer than 24 hours to get permission, he said.
Prices depend on the jet size and flying time. Business travelers will pay about 2,500 euros (about $\3,530) to hire the smallest, a Cessna Citation Bravo, for one hour of flight and close to 12,000 euros per hour for the largest, a Boeing 737 business jet, Tiptsov said. Clients will have to fork out another 1,000 euros to 2,500 euros if they want the plane to wait overnight.
As with regular flights, business jet passengers are issued tickets, even if own the jet, Tiptsov said. The law mandates that tickets be issued for all passengers, regardless of ownership.
NetJets uses a system of prepaid cards that cover a minimum of 25 flight hours, Pasetchnik said. A typical card, valid for one year, for a midsize aircraft, such as a Hawker 800 and Cessna Citation Excel, costs 184,000 euros ($\261,150), he said. That breaks down to 7,360 euros per hour.
While a larger plane would cost more, a long-term contract allows for a lower hourly rate, he said. Unlike one off charter flights, NetJets does not charge for downtime or the return flight for the empty jet, he said.
NetJets Europe, the largest operator of business jets in Europe, owns and runs 120 jets. In addition, its clients have access to another 550 NetJets aircraft in the United States and the Middle East.
Even Tiptsov admitted that foreign business jet companies have a heavy presence in the market. "Their jets are new and of good quality," he said.
The average jet is two or three years old, said Pasetchnik. In May, NetJets Europe celebrated its 100th Russian client since it began operating in the country in 2003, he said.
"Russians have a taste for exotic destinations ... They have many business and leisure interests outside of the country," he said. "Russians fly a lot within Europe, to Asia, the Middle East, the United States and, most recently, to Africa."
One businessman has scheduled a flight for December to circle the globe, crossing the North and South poles in a Gulfstream jet, Pasetchnik said. The client previously flew around the world along the equator.