Hasta La Vista, Baby
The world looks so much nicer from a private plane, but owning one is such a hassle.William Cash buckles up and meets the founder of VistaJet
LAST CHRISTMAS, I was searching in a kitchen cupboard at home for a panettone that somebody had given me as a house present when I came across a bottle of Italian Tignanello red wine.
Tignanello happens to be not only one of my favourite wines but almost like a chic luxury brand in that it says something about you: walk into any oligarch’s or (surviving) hedge fund king’s kitchen in Belgravia or Mayfair today, and you will see the Tignanello neatly displayed across the wine rack with its label as distinctive as any Hirst Spot painting.
I had no immediate recollection as to where my bottle had come from until half way through lunch when I recalled that the last time I had drunk Tignanello was in Monaco during the annual boat show in November when I was invited for lunch with VistaJet founder Thomas Flohr on board his yacht, the Nina J (named after his daughter). While many CEOs of luxury yacht companies were in Monaco to show off their latest fleets, and entertain VIP clients, Flohr was not in Monaco because he especially wanted to boast about his beautiful boat, docked close to Monaco’s new yacht club in Port Hercules.
Rather, as the hands-on owner and ‘le patron’ of the world’s premier ‘flying private’ luxury brand, Flohr was in Monaco to show why VistaJet is quickly becoming the private jet charter airline of choice to the world’s global elite class; and by elite, I mean corporate, social, Middle Eastern potentate, global professional, Saudi royal, Chinese mogul, Russian oligarch, as well as the old fashioned jetset.
Yes, like some exotic rare species, there are still a few of that old society breed (mainly German and Swiss rather than English) around who you will see arriving at Farnborough airport in a Mercedes S class on Friday afternoon, ready to fly out to St Moritz’s Samedan airport and be seated for dinner at Rolf Sachs’ Dracula Club by 9pm.
One reason that Flohr has boldly managed to turn VistaJet into something with a cult following among all the elite is that he is himself a fully paid up member of the very Global Citizen Club that he services with his planes.
The informal lunch on the Nina J, hosted by Flohr and his daughter Nina (pictured below left)— the daughter of Flohr’s ex-wife, Katarina, who used to be fashion editor of Russian Vogue — was exactly what makes VistaJet so very different from, say, Netjets (owned by Warren Buffett), which is almost a flagship for a certain brand of ‘wheels up, wheels down’ American capitalism.
Flohr might like to joke that the €40,000 cost of flying from London to Moscow on one of Vista’s distinctively painted Bombardier jets (silver and red, like his racing colours) is around the same as ‘burning through four Hermès handbags’. Yet the analogy is pure Flohr. This is a man who thinks only in the lingua franca of the wealthy elite. He would never say ‘the cost of a watercolour by the Scottish artist David Roberts’.
That Flohr was serving Tignanello and sitting with his guests casually dressed as if hosting a small lunch party off the coast of Capri is all part of the Flohr brand. VistaJet is not a fractional ownership private charter plane business: VistaJet owns all the planes. In many ways, Flohr is like a chic A-list version of Richard Branson in terms of the way that the VistaJet brand represents the aesthetics and personality of not only Flohr himself, but also his attractive, no-nonsense daughter Nina, who has personally designed the corporate uniforms of both the cabin crew and pilots and is no stranger herself to the worlds of fashion, business, art or high finance.
From the age of sixteen, she found herself on the front rows of fashion shows around the world, beside her mother, and her aesthetic sophistication and demanding standards have rubbed off on the VistaJet brand, which is one reason why the brand has such a cult status among the global elite.
On board, I noted that each aircraft boasts yacht-inspired comfort, with complimentary cashmere soft furnishings, super-thick carpeting and sleek wood furnishings; the delicious food came from Harvey Nichols. I loved the fact that VistaJet operates primarily from Farnborough Airport, which as tout le monde knows is the only place to fly in and out of, with its state of the art terminal only for private use.
But the private jet business is no easy model. Turbulent financial markets, corporate frowning at the very idea of flying private — when commercial is available — volatile fuel prices, free-falling second-hand jet values, a struggling global economy: all these factors — combined with heavy competition from charter companies that lease out private planes that their owners aren’t using — mean than Flohr has had to be bold and do much of the marketing of the brand on his terms, in the tradition of the ‘private jet mogul’, as the Wall Street Journal recently described him.
But Flohr has got so much right that it is not surprising that he has just won a major contract to service the Chinese private jet sector that will give VistaJet unique access to perhaps the world’s most lucrative emerging private charter client area.
Thomas Flohr is very much an example of the German entrepreneur whose passion for business and attention for detail means that his social and business lives have all but morphed onto one. He is clearly passionate about VistaJet and carries around a MacBook which allows him to track — by the hour — where all his planes and pilots are around the world, with each piece of data being ‘crunched’ by the former asset manager so that he can see how the company is performing and how costs can be saved.
Flohr conceived of VistaJet in 2004, partly as a result of not being able to find the sort of private jet charter service he wanted when he was travelling on business. Based on his personal experience, Flohr found that the ‘upscale lifestyle’ which private jet clientele were used to in their daily lives was not being translated to their private aviation experience. Flohr envisioned VistaJet as the luxury alternative in private aviation, and set about creating a lifestyle, not just a product, in his company.
Today VistaJet is the second largest private aviation company in the world, with the largest wholly-owned commercial fleet outside the Americas. The innovative business model offers a series of uniquely flexible options for use, including selling an agreed upon number of flying hours per year with guaranteed availability at lower costs than fractional and traditional aircraft leases. It is generally agreed within the aviation world that it makes little sense to own a plane if you fly fewer than 400 hours a year — VistaJet is designed for the client who typically flies between 40-400 hours a year.
Their commitment to giving clients complete flexibility extends further. If the client prefers to own the jet outright, they can buy it from VistaJet and operate it within the VistaJet Program. VistaJet will manage the aircraft for the customer in such a way that the customer gets the best possible return and value.
Back to that bottle of Tignanello. After I finished it, I remembered where it had come from. The cellar of the Nina J — after lunch he had given all his guests a bottle of the wine that is also served on his planes. One good reason for booking with VistaJet, if nothing else.
Read more by William Cash
Photograph courtesy of Francesco Carrozini