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By CHRISTINE NEGRONI
Published: November 18, 2013
NEW YORK — When the plane carrying Don and Gayle Keller landed in Boston in October after a three-week vacation, something unusual happened: United States customs and immigration officers boarded the plane, checked their passports and welcomed them home.
Few travelers should expect similar treatment. That kind of service is reserved for those who take vacations using private jets. In the Kellers’ case, on an Airbus A319 built for 130 and modified to carry 24 privileged passengers.
“It’s a great way to travel,” Mr. Keller said after returning from the trip offered by Lakani Tours of Newport Beach, Calif., which included stops in Panama City; Easter Island; Fiji; Adelaide, Australia; Agra, India; Masai Mara, Kenya; and Madeira.
At $95,000 a head, it does not come cheap. Still, Mr. Keller, 78, noted the remoteness of the destinations and the challenge of arranging all the details on the ground. “When you look at it in that way, the things we saw and the places we went,” he said from his office in Houston, “it was well worth the money.”
Touring by private jet is not a new way to travel. Heidi Lakani, head of the tour company, has been operating these kinds of trips for three decades. What is new is the number of companies looking for ways to capitalize on a widespread love/hate relationship with travel.
“What part of travel don’t you like?” she asked, before answering her own question. “Getting there. Even first class you can’t wait until you get there. But on a private jet the atmosphere is entirely different.” The 24 passengers on Ms. Lakani’s chartered airliner sit in spacious seats, cosseted by four flight attendants and a chef.
Until Lakani switched to the Airbus — and reduced the number of travelers per trip from 50 to 24 — she leased Boeing 757s from Loftleidir Icelandic, part of Icelandair. The company provides planes with 52 seats, all business class, to several tour operators, including Abercrombie and Kent and TCS Expeditions, said its sales manager, Johann Johannsson.
Business slowed after the 2008 financial crash, but Mr. Johannsson said bookings were now back near pre-crisis levels. “People have started putting their money into these kinds of things again. The economy is getting better and people are not afraid to do this anymore,” he said.
One of the newest offerings in the private plane travel market comes from the Four Seasons hotel chain. In 2012 it organized its first around-the-world tour for 52 passengers on a private airliner. Guests visited a dozen destinations in 22 days, staying at Four Seasons hotels. Demand for tickets, at $87,000 a person, was so strong that a second tour was added right away.
“The high net worth and the ultra high net worth individual continues to travel. Travel is an intrinsic part of their lifestyle — to continue without it is unimaginable,” said Susan Helstab, executive vice president of marketing for Four Seasons. Additional tours are being considered as Four Seasons targets emerging and developing markets like China and Russia.
Eleanor Preger traveled with her husband from Seattle through the Pacific on a Four Seasons tour last month priced at $70,000 a person. “It was an abundantly joyful trip — we’re still pinching ourselves,” she said.
“We never saw our luggage until we got to our room. When we would get to the T.S.A. they would take care of our passport,” Ms. Preger, 57, said, referring to U.S. Transportation Security Administration officers at the airport. “We would wait in a luxurious lounge until it was time to board the bus to get on the plane.”
Travel by private plane doesn’t just cut out the lines at the airport, the cramped seats and the pre-packaged food. Passengers eat meals prepared by chefs on the plane and at world-famous restaurants when on the ground. On tours they have access to nonpublic areas of famous sites. “I think it’s right up there for people who want to go places far away and want everything taken care of,” said Gary Walther, a travel writer who specializes in luxury travel. “You won’t get the deepest dive into the places you visit, but it will be enough, it will be efficient, it will be luxurious, and it won’t expose you to the vagaries of travel in remote regions.”
But for all the pampering, trips begin with a group of people who do not know each other. For a higher level of seclusion, the private aircraft fractional ownership company Flexjet, in Dallas county, Texas, is about to introduce a “Passport to the World” tour. For $1.5 million, a party of eight can cross the globe for 14 days in a mid-size, long-range Bombardier Challenger 605 business jet.
“This is truly your own private trip, with small group of friends and family,” said Deanna White, Flexjet’s president.
The company has not sold its first tour but Ms. White says it is getting plenty of interest. “The biggest selling point is the whole idea of a private, two-week, once-in-a-lifetime experience,” she said.
“Once in a lifetime” is used often to describe private plane tours. That’s how Mac MacDonald, a retiree living in Florida, thought about it before he took his first private plane vacation with Lakani in October. Still, now that he’s home, he has a different view. “We may well do one of these again,” he said.
“They think they are going to do it once,” Ms. Lakani said of her clients: but she has seen many come back. “Eighty percent get hooked,” she said.
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