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Bombardier vs. Gulfstream: How Private Jet Companies Are Fighting Over Hollywood Stars

Challenger 300

The tony, exclusive companies are pulling out all the stops to woo the entertainment industry, one of the last enclaves for showy wealth.

A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

As the sun set Aug. 28 in West Hollywood, Barry Bonds, NBCUniversal partnerships and licensing head Jonathan Treisman, Prince Frederic Von Anhalt (aka Mr. Zsa Zsa Gabor) and more than 150 other attendees gulped wine and listened to a five-piece jazz band while standing in a line that stretched to nearly 20 minutes long just to check out the event's headliner. What could keep such a disparate group of high-net-worth partygoers dutifully waiting around? A plane fuselage lacking wings, of all things, parked next to the plaza fountain of the Pacific Design Center. The cabin mock-up of the eight-seat, $18 million Learjet 85, the fastest Learjet to date -- whose first 100 units already have been ordered and will begin hitting the market next year -- was placed there by its manufacturer, Bombardier, a Canadian aerospace firm that has made it its business of late to become the brand of choice in Hollywood.

Fans already include Oprah Winfrey and Michael Eisner, among many others, and Bombardier has been making a more aggressive pitch to the Hollywood crowd, bringing on APA talent agency as a branding consultant last year, hiring aviation devotee John Travolta as a brand ambassador and even throwing a luncheon for Oscar nominee Viola Davis at Hotel Bel-Air in the spring. In addition to offering on-board screening rooms as a hook, Bombardier takes care to support such industry and industry-oriented institutions as BAFTA, the Shoah Foundation, the Milken Global Conference and the Toronto International Film Festival.

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Such strategies pay off in Hollywood, where clients pay $3 million a year to own and maintain private jets such as the top-of-the-line Bombardier Global Express or Challenger (Ted Turner has one, and Beyonce bought an 850 for Jay-Z for Father's Day) or Gulfstream (list prices start at $50 million) or as much as $70,000 to charter a round trip from Los Angeles to New York. (Other popular industry options include fractional leader NetJets, patronized by Seth MacFarlane, and the ascendant XOJet, which, unlike most services, owns its own planes.) Not to mention, a well-accepted love of luxury here dovetails with an actual need for efficiency in terms of travel. As the top end of the private-jet market keeps growing, so does the competition to get the top clients.

Among those buying private planes in recent years are director Peter Jackson, who upgraded to a Gulfstream G550 in 2010 for an estimated $68 million to fly from New Zealand to Los Angeles without a refueling stop. The Google triumvirate of Sergey Brin, Larry Page and Eric Schmidt are believed to have amassed a fleet -- not company-owned -- of eight jets, including two G5s, a Boeing 767 and a Boeing 757.

In an age when international distribution increasingly is a key part of a film's success, few studio execs can imagine putting on a global PR road show without deploying the corporate jet. "What we often do," says a studio exec, "is fly talent commercially to Europe for the start of the press tour then get a private jet within Europe to fly them around to different cities." (That recently was the case for Jeremy Renner on The Bourne Legacy tour.) "Though there are exceptions," adds the exec. "A star like Johnny Depp can get flown trans-Atlantic."

Other stars who rate private privileges include Robert Downey Jr., who is said to have flown in from the London set of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows on the Warner Bros. jet to present at the 2011 Golden Globes; Tom Cruise, who, says a source, was lured back to the third Mission Impossible film in 2006 with the promise of a certain number of hours on the Paramount jet; and Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. (Usually, it's stars only and no reps who fly, but, according to this source, Jolie's manager Geyer Kosinski has it written into some deals for the actress that he flies as well. He denies it.)

Flying private also is the only surefire way to avoid getting trampled by paparazzi at LAX. And that is something many publicists say is worth the price in terms of privacy and security. Marvels one top PR rep, whose A-list actress client always flies private: "I never understand. Madonna has all the money in the world -- why do I see her in airports? Why are the Beckhams in airports?" (Less deep-pocketed talent has been known to request -- when a studio isn't footing the bill for a G550 -- "a G-II with duct tape on the wings," notes one insider.)

Being a master of the skies has been a Hollywood high as far back as the 1960s when the likes of Hugh Hefner, Richard Burton (who needed more luggage space for himself and Elizabeth Taylor) and Frank Sinatra all purchased their own rides. The Chairman of the Board famously ferried the Rat Pack between Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Palm Springs on his Lear Jet with the tail number N175FS; Elvis Presley borrowed it for a spin to elope with Priscilla Wagner to Vegas in 1967. Beginning in the '70s, Gulfstreams supplanted Lear Jets as the industry's trophy toys when former Warner Bros. chief Steve Ross favored talented like Clint Eastwood and Barbra Streisand with flights on the studio's G-II. "He used it like candy and people got addicted," says Glenn Hinderstein of Glencoe Aviation, who advises a lenghthy client list of Hollywood names, many of whom he's worked with since his days as senior vp sales at NetJets, on their private jet travel.

For those who don't want the bother of ownership, chartering is a popular option and has been chosen by the likes of Nicole Kidman, Oliver Stone, Kanye West (who, according to electronic-music artist Skrillex, serves tempura and filet mignon on his flights) and the fickle Ben Stiller (who has been known to go flightily from charter company to charter company, unusual in a sector so relationship-driven). A Hollywood event planner describes what can happen when a talent lineup changes last-minute and someone like Rod Stewart ends up on Lil Wayne's charter. "It happened so fast that we couldn't change the catering order, and Stewart got stuck with Lil Wayne's order of fried chicken, popcorn, cotton candy and Welch's strawberry soda," says the planner. "Who knew they even made strawberry soda?"

Consultants say that for a mogul, top-level exec or blue-chip producer who flies more than 400 hours a year, private is easy to justify. (Until President Obama's American Jobs Act takes effect in 2013, business jets will continue to depreciate more quickly than commercial planes in a tax loophole that has benefited corporate owners.) Looked at one way, 400 hours is the equivalent of three to four round-trip itineraries a month between New York and L.A. That's 16 solid days a year in the air. "Use of a private aircraft typically reduces total travel time by a third," says private aviation consultant and acquisitions specialist Mark Bloomer of Bloomer deVere, citing the elimination of arriving early for commercial flights, going through security and waiting for baggage.

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Among the current cream of the crop is Bombardier's Global 6000, which, for $58.5 million, not only has a range of 6,000 nautical miles (that handles London to Tokyo) but also can easily be configured with a shower offering 40 minutes of water capacity. "For a movie producer or a head of a studio, you can hit the ground running. You don't need to go to a hotel room for two hours to shower," says Bombardier vp U.S. sales Brant Dahlfors. (The other latest primo model, Gulfstream's G650, due out next year for $65 million, will be the fastest nonmilitary aircraft on the market, with a 7,000-nautical-mile range for globetrotting execs.)

Film producer Randall Emmett, who has Alex Cross and End of Watch coming out in the fall, recalls a week this year "when I flew from Los Angeles to Toronto for two days, then New York for eight hours, then to Cleveland for the shooting of Alex Cross for just a night, then got a plane for another movie we're doing in New Orleans and then back to L.A. To do that commercially is very tough." Emmett until recently owned a Hawker 800 jet, which can seat eight. He's in the market for a new plane. "It's about the luxury of time," he says.

Hours in the air become more productive as private airplanes increasingly get tricked out with high-speed WiFi, large HD screens and videoconferencing capabilities. The top entertainment conglomerates average three jets in their corporate fleets. According to the most recent FAA records obtainable, Viacom has a Global Express and a G4; Disney execs fly a pair of Gulfstreams and a pair of Bombardiers; News Corp. has a G4, a G5 and a Boeing 757; and Sony and Comcast keep three Dassault Falcons apiece. (NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke and Bob Costas high-fived on one last year when they learned NBC had won exclusive U.S. rights to broadcast the London Olympics.) "We try to fly them as full as possible," notes a rep for one of the companies. Often an exec needs to be at the vice chairman level to requisition a flight.

None of these companies, when contacted by THR, wanted to comment publicly about their use of corporate jets. Nearly four years after General Motors and Ford sold theirs in the face of public outrage that their CEOs flew them to Washington to ask for government bailouts, very few in the business want to be conspicuous -- especially as private jets are known to carry the excesses of the infamous and profligately wealthy, from the airplane standing by when Warner Bros. tried to get then-Two and a Half Men star Charlie Sheen into rehab in early 2011 to former Dodgers co-owner Jamie McCourt including jet travel in her spousal-support demands from ex-husband Frank. (Don't even talk about Karl Lagerfeld's cat Choupette, who flies in the cockpit on the way to St. Tropez.)

In her A-list days, Demi Moore was said to have successfully demanded that a studio pay for an extra jet for her hair and makeup team. THR recently heard of one-percenters using their jets to fly in breast milk or an ice cream flavor from another city for a daughter's birthday party.

Reports of outrageous amenities don't help either, from gold sinks and bidets to operating theaters to -- for Saudi billionaire investor Al Waleed Bin Talal's double-decker Airbus A380, the world's largest airliner, which can seat 525 -- an on-board garage that can accommodate two Rolls-Royces, a horse and camel stable and a prayer room that can rotate toward Mecca, all of which is expected to cost more than $500 million.

Lingering perceptions aside, global private-jet travel has shown signs of a post-recession rebound, with sales of luxury jets inching up during the past couple of years. "Our clients fly for very primal reasons that didn't go away with the downturn," says Aviation Portfolio's Craig Ross, a private-jet consultant.

Like other rich sectors of the economy, the top end of the private-jet market thrives most. From 2007 to 2011, sales of the largest business jets grew 23 percent, while sales of small- and medium-size jets fell. Judging by the portfolios of Hollywood's biggest players, the order of covetability starts with Bombardier and Gulfstream, followed closely by converted Boeing commercial jets, which are far more expensive than most Bel-Air mansions. Fuel costs alone can run more than $3,000 an hour. To own one, says a private-jet broker in Los Angeles, "I think you should have a minimum net worth of $100 million. Minimum."

On the other hand, there's a glut of used jets out there; those who will settle for pre-owned aircraft can find there's a buyers' market right now, with older Gulfstream G-IVs going for as low as $12 million to $15 million (compared with $35 million to $38 million new).

Of course, private jets -- most in the L.A. area fly in and out of Van Nuys Airport, as well as Santa Monica, Burbank and LAX -- can be glammed up with everything from mohair banquettes to four-star chow. Barbara Davis remembers husband Marvin saying in their Gulfstream: " 'Let's circle around for another half-hour.' We were having the most marvelous meal. It was like a flying delicatessen." But the truth is, "The ability to travel anywhere without worrying about a schedule" is a luxury in and of itself, says John Dunkin, chief pilot of Donald Trump's Boeing 757 business jet, which the mogul purchased in 2011 for about $100 million from Paul Allen. The experience is so night and day from being herded into a commercial jet that, according to Blair LaCorte, CEO of XOJet, some of his most successful clients (who reportedly include Justin Bieber) remain anything but jaded. "Even for the people who fly regularly for either business or pleasure, the idea of private air travel still retains a certain mystique," says LaCorte. "It's not uncommon to see the most hardcore fliers pause as they walk across the tarmac toward their plane. They stop just to take it all in. Flying on your own plane is truly a unique emotional experience."

Indeed, those highfliers who once lived the dream of having a plane at their disposal and now must settle for snagging a ride on a friend's -- or even, good heavens, traveling merely commercial first-class -- certainly can attest. Tom Freston, years after losing his crown as CEO of Viacom, still was publicly mourning the loss of private-skies privileges during a January interview with Bloomberg Businessweek. Said Freston, "I think about it every time I'm taking off my shoes to pass through security."

Additional reporting by Mike Espindle.