Opening up a new vista in air travel

THE Nina J is bobbing up and down in the clear sparkling Riviera water, flanked by other super yachts that occasionally eject bevies of python and white linen-clad babes ready to take Monaco by storm. Around the pier, portly perma-tanned sugar daddies squeeze the waists of their young Ivankas as they ponder how to blow the next $100m at the Monaco Yacht show. Here, dogs come in handbags and breasts come in three sizes: 30, 40, or $50,000. This is the land of the uber rich.

Appropriately enough, it is here I have come to meet Thomas Flohr, the smooth, bronzed, curly haired CEO and owner of VistJets, the only leviathan in the private jet market other than US company NetJets. And if he is selling the lifestyle of his clients he isn’t doing badly.

The inside of the yacht is dominated by a Vertical Garden by french artist du Jour Patrick Blanc who, for around $200 per square foot, transforms your space into a living, breathing montage. The sofas are by Zaha Hadid, and the artfully arranged trunks are of course, vintage Vuitton.

Such attention to artistry and detail are what Flohr and his gamine, beautiful daughter Nina hope to achieve inside their £30m planes, that are now flying entrepreneurs and CEOs around the world for €7,000-€18,000 an hour. The 30+ jets, with their signature shiny metallic outsides, white Italian leather interiors and cashmere throws, are, Mr Flohr explains over seared fillet of beef and Tinganello, “what I would expect myself; there was never a brand representing what the owner’s type of people actually want.” Nina, 24, wearing the neutral clean logo-less lines that only the most understated designer labels can deliver, has used her creative talents to commission LA street artist RETNA to design some of the jet tails, and she is in talks with others.

Started in 2004, the company grew after Flohr – who made his money in asset management – bought a jet for his company. When it wasn’t in use, Flohr had the jet chartered out, and it was soon completely booked for the year – so he bought another. It was then that Flohr had his lightbulb moment.

“I thought: ‘It cannot be that I, having no idea of this business, have more of an idea than everyone else,’” he says. “I put all my financial analysts onto it – they came back saying the asset was very strong, it would hold its value very well. There was NetJets but that is very corporate American. I asked myself: where’s the brand, where’s the Four Seasons? I couldn’t find it, so I started it.”

Unlike NetJets, where you buy a share of the plane, there is no management contract; you are literally just buying the hours you fly per year. There is a 20 per cent leeway either side if you overfly or underfly; the investment works if you are flying between 50 and 500 hours a year. After that, Flohr would expect clients to get their own private jet; below that it is the occasional charter.

Flohr believes the reason his company grew 25 per cent in the past three years (he predicts further growth of 25 per cent a year for the next three years) is that, fundamentally, the world has changed.

“In this business it used to be corporate executives flying. Until about five to eight years ago, world trade was mostly through Western companies. However, global trade today is happening between countries which never traded together. Siberia with Saudi Arabia, Nigeria with China, China with Brazil. Inner Mongolia used to be just the Gobi desert, now it is exploding.”

As a result, the travel power routes have shifted from the obvious.

‘Try to fly from Abuja to Ulan Bator – it’s impossible,” says Flohr. “These countries now trade directly but the infrastructure is not geared up for it, and that is where we come in. I wouldn’t say this is the secret of our success but it is my conclusion – we will prosper as long as we believe that the global trade will exist between more remote countries.”

The type of client has also changed considerably in the last five years. Whereas it used to be FTSE CEOs, it is now “typically the entrepreneur rather than the multinational. You wouldn’t recognise 95 per cent of my client list,” he adds.

Predictably, the most frequented airport is Moscow, which VistaJets flies into five or six times a day – more than British Airways. The biggest growth area is West Africa, but the next frontier is, inevitably, China.

As you would expect from the kind of anonymous entrepreneur who has the odd million to spend on chartering a jet, high standards are expected.

“If the client wants to smoke, he can smoke,” says Flohr. “If someone pays these kinds of prices they should be able to do what they want.” There is no having to enable mobile phones to flight mode, and if you want to bring your surfboard, in it goes.

A keen oenophile and gourmand, Flohr is in talks with some of his favourite restaurants around the world – so sushi will be by Nobu’s Matsuhisa in LA and clients passing through London can expect Italian delicacies from Scalini’s.

However, as Flohr points out, “it’s not the in-air expeirence that bothers people; it’s how they are treated on the ground.” Your €7,000 an hour means you are driven straight up to the aircraft stairs, there is no customs, no security, and at the other end, the private channels are all red carpets and smiling professionals, ready to whisk your passport away for a quick inspection, and you straight into a waiting limo.

So next time you have to fly direct from Douala to Novosibirsk, and only Montecristos and toro sashimi will do, you know who to call.

Fleet type: Bombardier, Learjet, Challenger, Global and Global Express.

Price: Depends on hours required and plane selected. Range: €7,000-€18,000 an hour.

Routes: Europe, Middle East, Asia Pacific, Russia, West Africa and US East Coast. 75 per cent of flights are based in BRIC countries.

Packages: There are two: “program” or “on demand”. With “program”, you buy a Bombardier jet from VistaJet and lease it back to VistaJet to manage. With “on demand”, you buy an agreed number of flying hours per year and have guaranteed availability.