Highfliers in the private-jet business are doing just fine

In March 2008, Gulfstream Aerospace, the maker of private jets, announced that it was working on its biggest, fastest and most luxurious model yet: the G650. The list price, $64.5 million, would set an industry benchmark. Given the direction of the global economy since, the timing seems pretty bad. But the private-jet business is unusual. Gulfstream, a division of General Dynamics, has held up fairly well through the Great Recession and recently announced surprisingly strong quarterly sales figures. The G650, meanwhile, made its first flights last year, and even though its Federal Aviation Administration certification process will take another year or so, Gulfstream already has contracts to make these planes for about 200 customers, which means that if you’d like to sign up right now, the earliest you would get yours is 2017.

One reason I find the rapid takeoff of G650 sales intriguing is that it sounds like an imminently expendable expense in a period of economic uncertainty. But it occurs to me that what I’m really reacting to is what a private plane symbolizes (sickening riches) rather than what it is (a designed and engineered object that performs specific functions of great use to its possessor). Like most people, I assume, I’ve never evaluated a jet as a potential jet-shopper might. So when I learned that Gulfstream completed a version of the tricked-out interior on one of the five G650s it has built so far, I asked if I could have a look. To answer my questions about how such a rarefied and complicated product is developed, Preston Henne, Gulfstream’s senior vice president of programs, engineering and test, met me at the company’s headquarters near the airport in Savannah, Ga.

Given the money involved, it makes sense that Gulfstream’s customer base is fairly small and extremely demanding. In fact, Gulfstream has a “customer-advisory board,” a group of about 50 representative clients that it brings together twice a year for feedback and brainstorming sessions that last two and a half days. Membership rotates, and there’s a waiting list. In 2004, Henne says, the company asked the group what it wanted in a successor to the flagship G550. The answer: A lot – it took almost two years to devise a kind of blueprint. Thus began a project involving 37 Gulfstream departments, plus specialty outside vendors.

Some of the results are intuitive. The G650’s cabin is 14 inches wider and 3 inches taller, and the big oval windows (a Gulfstream design signature) are a few inches bigger, too. With new-model engines made by Rolls-Royce, tweaked wing aerodynamics and other changes, the flight time for the 6,900-mile trip from New York to Tokyo is nearly an hour shorter. Its maximum flight speed of Mach .925 is faster than any civilian airplane. Less obvious to me, but apparently of great importance to private-jet consumers, the air pressure in the cabin of a G650 feels like the air pressure at 4,850 feet, even when the plane is cruising at 51,000 feet (zooming over the riffraff of commercial planes and much inclement weather). That’s lower than the air pressure on the G550 and way lower than that of a commercial flight, and it matters because the higher the cabin pressure, the more the body has to keep its blood pumping, which is part of what makes air travel physically exhausting.

Henne also had a lot to say about how Gulfstream streamlined its design and production process during the development of the G650, but by now I was ready to see the thing. We rode on a golf cart past a half-dozen recently purchased Gulfstream jets of various sizes to the G650’s hangar. Wayne Tsang, cabin-interior project manager for the G650, showed me the microwave, freezer and expanded counter space in the kitchen area; the 12-inch TV screens that fold out from the armrests of the plush seats, which not only recline to fully horizontal at the touch of a button but also deliver a massage with the touch of another; and the redesigned “divan” that converts quickly to a bed. Buyers can choose from a dozen floor plans and a range of colour schemes.

I was assured by my hosts that Gulfstream customers aren’t looking to loll about in a posh environment for kicks – the payoff comes in the form of productivity, efficiency and so on. (According to Gulfstream, 72 percent of its customers are businesses, 13 percent are individuals and the rest is a mix of governments and “fractional” owners.) If there’s a touch of defensiveness in this, it’s no doubt because most of us consider the G650 and its ilk in symbolic terms: a thing that greed-head executives fly to Congressional bailout hearings or that supposedly populist politicians flashily eschew. Even Warren Buffett famously named his private jet the Indefensible. And Gulfstream itself doesn’t exactly reject the private jet’s symbolic weight: “Ownership is not for everyone,” brags a promotional piece for the G650. But I get Henne’s point: Buyers of private jets do not warehouse or display the things; they use them. Makers of and shoppers for all sorts of objects almost always insist that they care about form and function, not symbolism. It may be that for Gulfstream and its customers, this is actually true.