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Secretive VIPs splash cash on customised jets at air show

By | Jun 23rd 2011 | 3 min read
By | June 23rd 2011

By Kyle Peterson

The enormous $300 million (Sh27 billion) Boeing Co 747-8 Intercontinental parked at this week’s Paris Air Show is earmarked for an anonymous VIP customer who apparently needs one of the world’s biggest airplanes.

In fact eight of the 33 orders listed for the plane on Boeing’s website are attributed to "Business Jet/VIP customers".

Be it a government, head of state or wealthy family, the company guards the identity of customers if they request it. But that doesn’t stop the rest of the world speculating.

"VIPs are clearly oil money," said Alex Hamilton, aerospace analyst and managing director of EarlyBirdCapital, who attended the air show.

The Intercontinental can seat 467 passengers and lists at $317.5 million. Germany’s Lufthansa has ordered 20 and is set to be the first airline to bring the new jumbo into service, early next year.

The buyer of the first Intercontinental, however, is rumoured to be a Middle East head of state.

In 2007, Boeing’s top rival Airbus, a unit of EADS, named Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal as the first private buyer of an A380 superjumbo, the world’s largest passenger airliner which lists for about $370 million.

"I think people in different cultures, some of them really want to be a little bit more anonymous. It’s a large expense," Elizabeth Lund, vice-president and general manager of the 747-8 programme, told Reuters during a tour of the plane.

"Not everyone who buys a big yacht announces they have bought a big yacht."

She said that none of the anonymous Intercontinental buyers is from the US, adding that buyers are commonly heads of state. Air Force One, which carries the president of the US, is one of two customised 747s.

Lund said VIP customers for planes as large as the 747 often request extensive modifications, often bedrooms or extra bathrooms, to accommodate the special needs of the primary passengers and their entourages.

Such modifications typically are done outside of Boeing, but the company must sign off on the changes.

Lund said that, occasionally, requests are particularly interesting, such as one customer’s desire for an elevator.

"They would like a design for an elevator that comes out of the cargo bay so that the distinguished dignitaries don’t have to walk up the stairs, but they could walk into a ground-level elevator and be raised into the airplane," she said.

"It’s just sort of a very dignified way for a VIP to be able to access the airplane."

Meanwhile Airbus has benefited from airlines’ worries about sky-high fuel prices, winning customers for scores of its more fuel-efficient planes at the Paris Air Show as it jockeyed with Boeing for the spot as world’s biggest planemaker.

Europe’s Airbus sought to focus attention on its order books after it suffered a clipped wing, faulty gearbox and delays to a new jet ahead of the aviation industry’s showcase event.

The star of this year’s air show so far is a plane that won’t be airborne until at least 2015: the Airbus A320neo. It is a revamped version of the workhorse A320 family of single-aisle short and medium haul aircraft, but with more fuel-efficient engines.

As oil prices have jumped higher this year, the plane has become the company’s fastest selling model.

US airline JetBlue Airways announced Tuesday it has committed to buy 40 A320neos, and upgraded its order of 30 A320 aircraft to the larger A321 model with wingtips modified to get greater fuel efficiency.

Airbus also received a commitment for 50 A320neos from US aircraft leasing company CIT Group. A321neos have a list price of about $106 million, valuing the deal at up to $5.3 billion, but airlines often negotiate substantial discounts.

— Agencies

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