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Best Of The Best Part XII: Wings

The Big Idea: The Omniscient App

Illustration By Shout

One of the glaring shortcomings of private aviation is the lack of an industry-wide app that offers guaranteed pricing and real-time information. A few of the larger firms have invested tens of millions in developing apps for their own fleets. But most aviation firms use a private-label version of generic software from Avinode or FlyEasy, which provides the same data to all subscribers and lists estimated costs rather than final prices, often with a time lag.

Unprecedented demand, shortage of aircraft and a fractured operator base have kept most firms from developing their own apps (one noteworthy exception, here in the UK, being the markedly well-devised JetApp). The majority of providers have fewer than 10 aircraft, according to data service Jetnet, while only 10 have more than 50 jets in their fleets. These small companies are unlikely to have the resources to invest in new technologies.

“A lot of the smaller businesses run on spreadsheets or an antiquated Windows desktop tool,” says chief product officer at Wheels Up, Gene McKenna, a former Groupon executive now overseeing a 100-plus development team. “We’ve been focussing on scheduling optimisation across these platforms to make it simpler for them to get real-time information to us.”

“The more data points we gather, the more robust our algorithm becomes,” adds Vinay Roy, chief product officer of Vista Global Holding. “As our user database grows, these artificial-intelligence capabilities will become even more sophisticated, allowing for further reduced response times and competitive pricing.”

Sentient Jet president and CEO Andrew Collins says that converting the operators to 21st-century technology is likely to be slow and expensive but believes it will happen “in a fairly short” period. “This is an incredibly complex and dynamic market,” he says. “But it’s also not big enough, as opposed to the commercial-airline sector, to easily tackle the permutations that pass through it.” Permutations such as real-time scheduling and instant pricing, the inability to order catering online and expenses like fuel surcharges.

But industry leaders are determined to have an app that crosses the highly fractured aviation divide. Sentient Jet, Wheels Up and Vista-subsidiary XO offer instant pricing. All have invested in both technology and brainpower to make their apps faster, more accurate and useful for private fliers, many of whom are new to the industry. Sentient’s app, for instance, has a trip tracker and day-of-flight information in its latest update.

Wheels Up’s most recent version has similar features, with plans to add luxury resorts and yacht charters for seamless travel — the aim is to become the Expedia for high-net-worth individuals. It also hopes to introduce a social-networking component between members.

Beyond the advantage a cross- industry app provides against less- funded competitors, the leaders see it as something that has to match the personal digitisation revolutionising the rest of society. “We want our customers to have our white-glove experience, but we also want them to feel they’re in control and able to resolve their issues online,” says McKenna. “That’s only going to happen with an app.”

Light Jet: HondaJet Elite S

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Over its 20-year history, the HondaJet has moved into an evolution based on a revolution. When it made its first flight in 2003, the HondaJet was an efficient but funky-looking very light jet, with over-the-wing- engine mounts, four seats and an all-composite body. Announced last year, the eight-person Elite S is a step change from the previous Elite, with 200 pounds of increased payload and more advanced avionics.

All HondaJet models have the same best-in-class cruise speed of 485 mph at 30,000 feet. The 1,653-mile range is also top of its category, as is the flight ceiling of 43,000 feet. But the Elite S has automatic flight controls, which take over if the aircraft moves outside the safe-flight envelope, as well as under-speed protection that prevents stalls. The S also boasts new data-comm functionality that turns voice controls into text-based messaging with air-traffic control and ground operations. The company partnered with Bongiovi Aviation on a speaker-less cabin sound system integrated into the panels. The livery even received a shot of pizzazz with new deep-sea-blue, gunmetal and luxe-gold options.

Aircraft Interior: RH G650 Jet

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The home-furnishings behemoth has turned its exacting eye to private charter jets with the launch of RH One, a Gulfstream G650 that accommodates a dozen passengers. We loved the soft, simple, almost monochromatic design of the interior, decorated entirely in brushed European pale-white oak, not least because it’s a fresh change from the muted-but-sterile palettes of most corporate jets and the off-whites with occasional splashes of colour of privately owned aircraft. This wooden sanctuary calls to mind a stateroom onboard a 1930s ocean liner, particularly with its stainless-steel embellishments and porthole-style windows.

The interior is fitted with 12 seats, clad in charcoal-linen and grey-leather upholstery, as well as hand-woven carpeting. The abundance of wood might not be to everyone’s tastes, but the overarching sense of calm conveys a unique, classy vibe. Assembling that much joinery so flawlessly was also a technical achievement. RH One’s exterior will also be identifiable from its two-toned metallic paint job with the Champagne-hued undercarriage.

Flying Roadster: Klein Vision Aircar

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Klein Vision’s AirCar has jumped ahead of the half-dozen competitors in the flying-roadster sector by attaining its certificate of airworthiness from the Slovak Transport Authority. The company is working on EASA and FAA certification, with the goal of moving towards mass production as early as next year.

In road mode, the two-seat composite AirCar has a sleek, futuristic look, complete with a spoiler in back. The flying roadster unfolds its wings and tail like a huge toy to transform from car to aeroplane. After landing, the switch to road-ready takes less than three minutes: each of the two main wings folds into the body, and the tail surfaces retract so the machine will fit into a car-sized garage. It won’t be able to simply take off in gridlocked traffic, but if its operator wants to shorten the commute between two cities, utilising local airports can cut travel time dramatically.

The beauty of this flying car is that it drops neatly into existing infrastructure and rules. Juiced by a BMW 1.6-liter car engine powering both the wheels and propeller, it will have a 622-mile range and cruise speed of 186 mph, while it should reach 100 to 112 mph on the flat. Takeoff speed is 75 mph. The prototype for the production model will be ready this year: depending on the luxury features, avionics and other equipment, the price will range between £400,000 and £795,650.

Space Tourism: SpaceX

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The past 12 months have revealed the new space race. Mercury-style rockets, supersonic jets and high- altitude balloons have entered the realm of NASA to offer private individuals a taste of space, even if it lasts merely minutes. While Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic had the celebrity-heavy launches in 2021, Inspiration4, using SpaceX’s reusable Falcon 9 rocket, was the most successful venture. The three-day orbital mission aboard the Dragon capsule “Resilience” had all the trappings of a Star Trek prequel with its multicultural, all-civilian crew: one billionaire and three specialists, united by a love of space. Of course, raising nearly £200 million for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital was laudable, too.

SpaceX’s second noteworthy mission was Ax-1, an April trip by three businessmen and a former astronaut to the International Space Station. The journey aboard the Dragon capsule “Endeavour”, organised by Axiom Space, included copious research by the passengers for the Mayo Clinic, Montreal Children’s Hospital, Cleveland Clinic and other global organisations.

Like professional astronauts, all the participants underwent a regimen of preparation, including centrifuge training and inhabiting close quarters to approximate being in the capsule — which has about the same interior space as a large SUV.

Two things were key to these missions’ historical significance. Firstly: they were the inaugural orbital and ISS spaceflights paid for by private individuals and launched by a private company. Secondly: the capsules were controlled autonomously. Combine the two and space tourism suddenly becomes more than a joy ride, with space walks and lunar orbits now real possibilities.

Sustainability Programme: Victor Carbon Offset Programme

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In 2019, private aviation firm Victor published a 12-page insert in a national newspaper outlining the facts about emissions from private jets. Founder Clive Jackson received serious pushback from other aviation firms arguing that the disclosures would damage the industry’s reputation. But Victor redoubled its efforts, becoming private aviation’s first carbon- neutral provider.

Now, Victor has guaranteed it will offset carbon emissions from its flights by no less than 200 per cent. It is not waiting for its clients but paying hundreds of thousands of dollars each year from its own bottom line for the offsets. It’s also being unusually transparent to avoid any charge of “greenwashing”.

The company’s audited report for 2021 reveals that its jets flew a total of 2,917,223 nautical miles last year, burning 2,401,385 gallons of fuel and creating 27,906 tonnes of emissions. To offset this impact, Victor purchased 60,128 carbon credits, invested in 14 projects around the world, including the Rimba Raya Biodiversity Reserve Project in Borneo, the Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary Project in Cambodia and the Karacabey Wind Power Project in Turkey.

Of the total credits, 93 per cent were purchased by Victor, with the remaining 7 per cent bought by its clients. Victor sources its carbon credits through third-party accredited providers Vertis and South Pole, so the programmes are trackable down to the last dollar spent.

“Our 200 per cent offset scheme takes the decision out of people’s hands by taking the steps to mitigate the carbon emissions on all our flights as standard, with no additional cost to the customer,” says Jackson, adding that Victor encourages clients to balance the “privilege” of private flying with “obligations to the planet”.

Large-Cabin Business Jet

Andrew Hertzog

Gulfstream began planning the G400 as a best-in-class business jet back in 2009. With certification expected in 2025, it’s the smallest member of an aircraft family that includes the G500 and G600. In the initial designs, clients mandated space, comfort, ergonomics and technology; they essentially wanted a modern jet with transcontinental range. The final rendition includes a spacious cabin, with choices of luxurious materials and mission-specific configurations across two and a half zones. The layouts can include seating for up to 12, lounges with tables, an office area and sleeping for five. The G400 is part of the large-cabin category, but its fuselage is smaller than its siblings’, though with the same cross-section and headroom.

The design includes advanced soundproofing for a quiet ride, with 10 windows that Gulfstream claims are the largest in business aviation. The cockpit has Gulfstream’s Symmetry Flight Deck, a shared platform across the newest generation of Gulfstreams, with active-control sidesticks and touchscreen displays to ease pilot workload. With its Pratt & Whitney PW812GA engines, the G400 has a range of 4,200 nm at Mach 0.85 and max cruise speed of Mach 0.90.

Interior Concept: Altea’s Global 7500 Concept

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In counterpoint to the open layouts currently dominating interior design, Altea has a new pod concept that promotes privacy. The London-based aviation and design firm created this layout to coincide with Bombardier’s delivery of its 100th Global 7500 in March. “We thought, what if you’ve got six colleagues, maybe from a hedge fund, flying to Europe?” says Robin Dunlop, the firm’s founding partner. “They’ll want to work in their own spaces and maybe have a communal area where they can meet up later to talk business or watch a movie.”

The concept boasts privacy zones, a lounge that converts into a spacious bedroom and a spa-like bathroom and shower. Architectural lighting, natural materials and ample stowage complete the experience. “We like to say it’s privacy in a private jet,” explains Dunlop, adding that he and his team drew inspiration from midcentury Scandinavian design. The interior employs a mix of vegan leather for elements such as seatback covers and natural larch wood for sidewall and ceiling panels. “We aimed for a simple-material palette that’s light and airy with a spark of colour,” he says. “You know, playful.”

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