For most of us, flying involves a lack of leg room, insufficiently cold wine and if you’re especially unfortunate, being kicked in the back for several hours. If you’re lucky, the wine is free and your seat reclines. If you’re really lucky, you’re in premium economy.
If you’re very rich though, or know someone who is, getting from A to B by plane is an altogether different experience. Forget first class – private jets offer the ultimate in luxury air travel. But what really goes on in these vessels of the elite?
When it comes to flying private, how people behave often comes down to who is paying for the charter and why. People who fly in private jets can be the owners of the aircraft, who have spent tens of millions on them; they can be celebrities, politicians (Rishi Sunak recently made three trips this way in 10 days, including from London to Blackpool), sports teams or companies who are chartering them; or they can be clients who are flying as guests at the behest (and expense) of someone else.
Chartering a 13-seat Bombardier Challenger 850 from London to Glasgow will set you back around £10,400; long-haul flights can obviously be a lot more expensive than that. Then there’s the environmental cost – private jets are between five and 14 times more polluting than commercial planes (per passenger) and 50 times more polluting than trains.
Christina (not her real name) is 23 and has been working on private jets for three and a half years. She says: “I see all kinds of people onboard. For example, if a client is having a party on a yacht and they want a singer, they will fly the artist out on their own. Then we have politicians who travel with an entourage.”
Often there is a correlation between how a passenger conducts themselves and their wealth. “Owners usually never drink on board. People who have been invited to an event might have some champagne or wine with dinner,” she says.
That said, there are guests who like to indulge, and there are certainly flyers with their own unique demands and preferences. Christina says: “Sometimes you have six guests who don’t need anything and then sometimes you have three who keep you occupied for eight hours. They get bored and want to ‘try things’ – we bring them food, they try it, they send it back, order the next thing, try it, send it back… It goes on like that.”
In addition to appearing flawless, crew have to present a demeanour of calm the whole time – as well as prepare and plate all the food, do all the washing up in a tiny cramped galley, serve drinks and manage whims and wellbeing.
“When they call us, we run,” says Christina. One of the more unexpected duties she has to do as crew is grocery shopping in the destination to lower the cost of expensive caterers. For a flight departing from Paris Christina recently had to source high-end cheese, chocolate, ham and wine. Sometimes she has to arrange delivery from top restaurants before take-off, which can be logistically challenging.
Flying on a private jet can also put crew in a vulnerable position. Christina works on a 19-seat Airbus and if there are seven passengers or fewer, she will be on her own in the cabin the entire time, with just one other member of crew to assist her if there are more. She says: “I have never had an incident of anyone touching me inappropriately. I am sure that does go on but my company is protective of us. Also it’s Airbus – it’s not a small private jet where you [might] have businessmen hooked on drugs.”
She adds: “There have been stories in the past of clients misbehaving but they [weren’t allowed to] book again.” She also says that payment is taken upfront now because her company had a “really bad experience” that sounds similar to when con artist Anna Delvey managed to take a US$35,000 private jet flight without paying for it.
She also admits that now and again she gets guests who want service that is “fast not pretty. Once, someone got angry with me for turning the label of a sauce bottle to face them.”
She also admits that at the beginning, having worked on a low-cost airline, she expected the passengers to be the difficult ones, but in fact it’s more often the pilots. “They [can] bully the crew, especially when they are new. They say things like you are ‘not welcome’, that you should ‘find another job’, that you could be ‘kicked out easily’.”
She cites one occasion when her colleague suggested to the pilot that they eat the leftover catering on arrival instead of throwing it in the bin, and he agreed. However, upon landing, [the pilot] changed his mind and decided he wanted to eat out, “so he started yelling at her – he was behaving like a little kid. Respect is sometimes an issue,” she says.
Christina – who was given no specific training for working on a private jet and is on duty for 21 days a month – says that overall the work is very stressful. “When you have 19 people who all want to eat at the same time, it’s just [so hectic]. And usually they are known or important people. You have to improvise a lot of the time.
"For example, when passengers bring their own food on board and you don’t know how to prepare it. Sometimes there are people who you aren’t allowed to ask questions to – like whether they want dinner. And on one occasion, I had a guy who asked me what clothes to wear when he landed because he didn’t have his PA with him and was lost without her,” she recounts.
Her worst experience was when she got food poisoning two days before a flight. Christina says: “We were on an island where it was impossible to get a backup. It was a 10-hour flight with two hours’ preparation and two hours cleaning after landing. There was no more vomiting or diarrhoea by the point we took off but I felt horrible. I thought I would break in the middle but I had to perform. The passengers were just drinking and drinking the whole flight.”
For most people, the best thing about working on private jets is the opportunity to see the world. Christina recently had 10 days in a luxury resort in the Maldives while she waited for her guests to fly home.
What about the money? Salaries start from about €3,000 (£2,640) a month and once she received a €2,500 tip from a guest, but unlike on super yachts where crews can make huge sums of money from tips, cabin crew can go a “whole year” without receiving one. Ironically, it sounds like elite flyers can be a stingy bunch.