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Mile-high millionaires: When should you buy a jet?

Friday, 11 Oct 2013 | 9:20 AM ET
London store sells private jets
Friday, 11 Oct 2013 | 12:00 AM ET
Robert Frank talks about one London store where shoppers can buy a multi-million dollar jets.

"Ten percent of the people who come here are drive-bys," Steve Varsano, founder of luxury private aircraft company The Jet Business said.

"They come around the roundabout in their chauffeur-driven car; they're curious; they go back around one more time and say, 'Wow there's a jet, what's that about?"

There are ample potential customers driving through Hyde Park Corner in London, enticed by a shop window that has the full interior of an Airbus 319 aircraft, complete with dining room and bedroom—although the latter also serves as Varsano's office.

The mock interior of an Airbus jet at The Jet Business
The Jet Business
The mock interior of an Airbus jet at The Jet Business

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Since 2012, The Jet Business has operated, as Varsano claims, is the world's first storefront dealership in private jets. Varsano said he decided to open the business in London because he had noticed a shift in the market. Whereas before, according to Varsano, Americans made up 80 percent of the customers, now that was closer to 50 percent, as emerging markets started to use the company: countries like China, India, Ukraine, Nigeria, Mongolia and Angola.

"Places it was difficult to get to and back in a reasonable amount of time," Varsano explained.

"How do I get these people to come to me? Where would be the best place? There is a lot of competition in America, and I thought the international market outside of the U.S. was growing was untapped."

Hence, The Jet Business opened up in central London, the gateway to these new clients.

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Of course, buying a private jet is no small task. Jet prices range from $3 million to $90 million, although 85 percent of Varsano's customers buy second-hand aircraft. He said that most jet owners switch jets every four to five years, much like car owners, although these vehicles cost a bit more to run: depending on the size of the aircraft, it can cost between $700,000 to $4 million per year to run your own aircraft.

For those multimillionaires who are tired of travelling first class, but perhaps don't want to fork out for a jet that will run up bills for years, there is an alternative: the membership scheme.

"There are high-net-worth individuals in this world who can't justify the cost of operating a jet," said Will Ashcroft, CEO of Jumpjet, a company that offers a membership scheme for private jets at the approximate cost of a first-class airfare.

"I have two billionaires on my membership today, one of whom who will spend $400,000 dollars to get his Ferrari refurbished in Maranello, Italy, but refuses to spend $31,000 to go round trip from Los Angeles to Austin to watch the Formula One race on a private jet."

(Read more: Luxury round-the-world tours on private jets take off)

The Jet Business showroom in London.
The Jet Business
The Jet Business showroom in London.

Jumpjet, launched earlier this year in the U.S. only, offering memberships that allow passengers a certain number of trips per year on charter aircraft that serve 40 U.S. cities.

For example, with Jumpjet, you could sign up to the Flexible Upper Club membership, costing $1,500 a month, $18,000 annually. For your buck, you get ten guaranteed round trip flights, guests for $1,000 extra each, complimentary frequent flyer trips and a one-time registration fee of $550.

Varsano and Ashcroft seemingly are gunning for different markets, with the former aiming for the big-spenders while Ashcroft's business is tailored to seize on the "frustrated premium class airline traveller."

Ashcroft, explaining the U.S. market where he operates, said, "Here, the distances are so great, yet the airline service is atrocious. The domestic system is a mess: the cancellations, the delays. This country, on average, has between 570 and 670 million airline passengers per year. Of that, about 10 percent are the premium classes. They have nowhere to go, the airline service isn't getting any better."

Ashcroft wants to conquer this market with a business approaching its first full-year this January.

Meanwhile, Varsano says his jet dealership isn't just for the ultra-high-net-worth clients: he said that a lot of start-up companies come to his Hyde Park office, and he argued, "Over 70 percent of all corporate jets in the world are flown by middle-management people. It's not necessarily the bad image of some fat cat with a cigar and some champagne, that's not what corporate aviation is about."

Of course, later on, while Varsano was showing the shop's interior, designed like the inside of an Airbus 319, he did reveal a humidor that some clients like to use when visiting.

While Varsano and Ashcroft aren't direct competitors—and Varsano noted that many his clients will allow companies like Ashcroft's to use their jets when they're in use—both are seeking expansion into each other's markets.

"Absolutely, international is our goal," Ashcroft said, "Our five-year plan is to have a presence in Latin America, United Arab Emirates, and Asia, and we will assess Africa." Varsano hopes to bring The Jet Business store-front, face-to-face model to New York eventually.

So should you buy or should you become a Jumpjet member? The answer, according to Varsano, is actually quite simple.

"If you're not flying your air plane 150 to 200 hours a year, you really shouldn't buy one. You should just rent one. We're the first people to advocate that."

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