For those who can afford it, private aviation is an easy way to bypass the epic lines at TSA, stale food court sandwiches, and those armrest-hogging seatmates. It also buys an elusive treasure: additional hours in the day. Sunrise yoga in Los Angeles, lunch in Napa, a show in Vegas—it’s all doable when the sky isn’t the limit. As insiders say: “Jets aren’t aircraft, they’re time machines.”
These flying miracles became more accessible after the 2008 recession, when membership clubs began offering UberPool-like sharing schemes. Dallas-based JetSuite led the pack. Its SuiteKey program is like a debit account for airfare: The more you deposit, the deeper your discount. Of its 900 members [at the time of this writing in 2020], at least 50 have invested $1 million.
Although the pandemic spurred JetSuite’s parent company to file for Chapter 11 in April, its furloughed staff hopes for a resurgence. That includes me: Right before lockdowns arrested the global travel industry, I spent a week on JetSuite’s team, coordinating requests for Bitcoin billionaires, searing steaks in the sky—did you know pilots wear oxygen masks when the food is being cooked?—and cleaning up shockingly soiled cabins. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at life on a private jet.
Pets are the true VIPs of the sky …
Accommodating pets is one of JetSuite’s most common special requests and a prime reason people fly privately, according to Anaselia Galli, guest services director, who recently arranged transport for a rare feline—an African serval—estimated to be worth more than $10,000. Its owner (not Carol Baskin) couldn’t fathom flying commercially; her “giraffe cat” wouldn’t have enough space to stretch her two-foot-long legs.
Once, a couple even sent their pet privately while they flew commercially. “The head of a large hedge fund was being relocated and paid $175,000 to charter a brand-new Gulfstream G450 to move his dog and its nanny while the owner and his wife flew British Airways,” says Privé Jets co-founder Isaac Grimberg, who often places his clients aboard JetSuite planes.
Among the frequent-flying canines I booked with JetSuite were Muffin, a 200-pound, codependent goldendoodle who must—at all times—have one paw on her owner, and Mr. Wigglesworth, a golden retriever whose regular cross-country flights to a specialty oncologist have all but ensured that he’ll outlive us all. At 112 (that’s dog years, of course), he’s still kicking.
One couple sent their cat to a different type of doctor—a cloning specialist, who included a basket of identical kittens on a return flight months later.
Most impressive, however, was a family moving to Hawaii with their airborne ark of animals—15 cats, 8 dogs, 5 parrots, and 6 ferrets. (Whenever feathered creatures are onboard, the staff lays down tarps to catch mid-flight droppings. It’s all very meta.)
Pigs may not fly on JetSuite’s books (yet), but sometimes ponies do—a pair of them! The single-most talked-about pet the team has seen is … a rat. For years, Bob the Rat’s owner traveled with her rodent, cradling him in her arms or letting him scamper around in a laundry hamper full of her clothes. The sole time Bob’s human went on holiday without him, she had a vet babysit. “She called me, extremely concerned that Bob didn’t look well in one of his pictures,” Galli recalls. “She was right; Bob died a week later.” We’ll let you guess who spent an hour and half on rattieratz.com—yes, that’s a real thing—helping her client choose a new pet.
… But animals aren’t the only ones making a mess
Pet accidents require planes to be shut down upon landing for deep cleaning—which results in substantial fines for the owners. Besides dogs, it’s kids who make the biggest onboard messes. On more than one occasion, they’ve gone full Picasso, drawing with markers all over the seats and walls. The cost of replacing all that ruined leather and paneling? Easily $25,000.
Certain foods that stain are banned unless explicitly requested—chocolate, soy sauce, and dark berries among them. The crew also uses Jedi mind tricks to subtly steer passengers toward white wine or clear spirits when they’re choosing alcoholic beverages.
That didn’t stop a certain Silicon Valley founder from routinely laying plates of sushi across the floor, then standing on his seat, cabernet in hand, and maniacally pouring soy sauce from up high. Worse, he would always insist on eating the entire meal while lying down, for reasons nobody understood. A recent, major devaluation of his business means he probably won’t be flying privately anymore.) According to one account manager, this type of behavior is hardly unusual among the tech set: “Most startup bros quickly get ugly with their new money, being very aggressive and demanding.”
The most legendary biohazard on record occurred during a flight to Las Vegas. “According to the pilots, the two passengers on board got wasted and just [defecated] all over the vessel, smearing it everywhere,” Galli says. If pet plop usually comes with a $1,000 cleaning fee, imagine the bill for the human variety. The instance has haunted the team ever since—“the plane’s serial number is 250, but we’ve called it ‘Poo-50’ internally for years.”
Beware the Friday flight to Vegas
Poo-50 is just the tip of the landfill: Vegas-bound travelers are frequently drunk, debauched, or downright rude. “One high-roller in the gaming world always demanded to smoke on the aircraft,” says Amy Caris, manager of in-flight operations. When warned by pilots, he’d retort, “‘You’re going to turn around, sit in the cockpit, and fly the f---ing plane,’” Caris says. Eventually, MGM agreed to fumigate his jet after every flight.
Vegas attracts the crew’s most detested customers, such as a cast member of Vanderpump Rules who mistreated so many assistants that his account manager never spoke to the same one twice. A certain HGTV duo also ranks on the staff’s list of deplorables for their incessant rudeness and fighting. “One time, they completely wrecked a luxury van because it wasn’t a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter,” the account manager says.
With West Coast pro athletes, the Sin City pregame gets especially messy. Eric Dufay, director of charter sales, says, “They’ll start with two bottles of Hennessy and a handle of Patrón,” then engage in pre-landing push-ups to “get their buff on” before hitting the dance floor. Often it simply results in pints of puke.
“Mile-high club” shenanigans happen on the return legs, when a plus-one suddenly joins the passenger manifest. (Once it was plus-five.) But affairs aren’t limited to Vegas. “It’s not uncommon for our membership to have two accounts—one for their wife and a second for their ‘other wife,’” a manager says. “And when I say it’s not uncommon, I mean it’s very, extremely not uncommon.” Surprisingly, the smaller planes are where more passengers indulge in soft-core porn scenes—and not in the Legacy 650s with a retractable privacy curtain.
The real divas are personal assistants
Cabin attendant Amber Zdrakas is quick to point out that celebs are usually well-behaved—especially singers. “When you work a concert tour, you become part of the entourage,” she says. Sometimes she gets invited backstage or, even better, serenaded on board. The duties can be less glamorous, too: She once chauffeured a forgotten teddy bear to an ultrafamous (but very appreciative) pop star’s hotel room.
Hands down, everyone’s most-loved celebrity is a certain big-deal sitcom actor who’s genuinely down-to-earth and always knows her pilots’ names. Her personal assistant, however, makes the JetSuite team want to bang their heads against their desks.
As a general rule, famous flyers are very well liked. It’s their PAs who evoke constant dread; they’re usually in their early 30s and seem constantly upset, says Zdrakas, who adds that “85% of the time, they’re making the situation way worse than it has to be.”
Case in point: PAs’ demands don’t often sync up to their VIPs’ actual needs, Zdrakas says. Hyperspecific items on riders—such as allowing only blue hydrangeas on the plane or having a disco ball hanging when they board—are always honored. But many of them, especially requests that cabin crew not make direct eye contact or speak to their guests, are routinely off-base.
Dietary considerations are the biggest quagmire. Zdrakas constantly receives strict instructions from assistants to provide carb-free meals—only to have the boss show up, asking for a pizza. And one gluten-phobic singer-actor will reliably scarf down a burger, fries, and ranch dip—as long as his health-conscious wife isn’t there to see.
Luggage gets pushed to the limit
There’s no predicting what flyers will try to bring on board. The team once dropped a client in middle-of-nowhere Arizona, only to pick him up a week later with a 300-pound elk. Getting it on the plane required on-site butchery and creative packing—elk antlers are huge!
Then there are shopping addicts who use jets instead of FedEx, filling them with goods for their second and third homes. “A couple heading to their villa in Cabo completely filled the aircraft with TVs, blenders, irons, microwaves, and even coat hangers,” says pilot Andrew Adair. “High-tech TVs I get, but you can definitely buy hangers in Mexico.” Another pair tried to fly from Saint Tropez with more Louis Vuitton merch than could fit on the plane. “We had to tell them to pick their favorites and ship the rest,” says Dufay, the charter sales head.
Food, not fuel, is the most wasteful aspect of private flying
If fuel consumption is private aviation’s most egregious offense, food waste is its most surreptitious one, as companies strive to accommodate every dietary whim. International safety rules expressly forbid the arrival of most food items upon landing in the U.S., which means that all the provisions stocked to anticipate picky clients’ sudden desires end up incinerated. Most meals come from caterer Air Culinaire Worldwide, whose lock on in-flight dining allows it to charge $18 for a single lemon.
Enter JetSuite’s favorite game: “Guess the bill.” Everyone makes a bet based on the departure airport and the day’s menu—say, two oatmeals, fresh orange juice, four muffins, and bloody mary mix, leaving from Los Angeles, a hub with easy procurement. My guess: $100. Correct answer: $360. Let’s try another: breakfast and lunch for nine flying across the Pacific. $3,000? Nope: $6,800. And expect to pay 10 times the rack rate for a bottle of Dom. Dufay has never seen a bill go higher than $10,000, but at his former job there were rumors of five-digit foodstuffs for a Middle Eastern royal family—and all they’d end up eating were the potato chips. The leftovers ended up in flames.
Cooking aboard a Legacy 650 is a feat unto itself. Caris taught me to sear steaks on the bottom of the galley oven (rather than in a pan) to compensate for its low-power safety settings. To avoid food odors in the passenger cabin, the ventilation dumps into the cockpit. “It would probably freak clients out to know that pilots often wear oxygen masks when I’m cooking,” she says with a laugh.
Staff will play the role of problem-solving superhero—and therapist
Remember that scene in The Devil Wears Prada when Meryl Streep’s character asks her assistant (Anne Hathaway) to fly her back to New York through a hurricane? “I totally would have gotten Miranda Priestly home,” Galli asserts. She’s hired superstretch limos and charter buses with beds to shuttle grounded travelers, bought space heaters to defrost a plane’s batteries, and even footed five-figure fees to change a VIP family’s connecting commercial flight.
Turbulence is another issue. Zdrakas uses her maternal instincts—literal handholding—to calm certain hysterical passengers. That wasn’t enough for a former Saturday Night Live star whom Adair considers to be JetSuite’s most terrified flyer. On one bumpy flight, he says, “he removed all of his clothing and white-knuckled it on the floor, chugging vodka.”
Weather-related flight adjustments are most common when flying in or out of New York. Yet Aspen is a more stressful place for pilots to land, with its single runway and nouveau riche midwinter demand. The headaches pay: Aspen-goers are among JetSuite’s wealthiest members. Take one family of six who travels with their nanny every March from Mexico City. “They never bring luggage,” Dufay says. “They just buy all-new ski gear, then ditch it in their vacation home when they leave.” They also rent five Hummers. “No one drives them,” Dufay adds. “They just like the way they look in the driveway.”
Fat invoices, slim margins
During my week on staff, we organized a California day trip from Burbank to Napa for oenophiles and connected a flyer with his megayacht in the Caribbean. My most expensive itinerary, between Los Angeles and Kona, Hawaii, left an aircraft idle for eight days and cost $180,000—half of what another colleague made booking a weeklong holiday to Tahiti. But profits don’t come easy in this volatile industry. “One bad week could sink a company,” says President Stephanie Chung.
Something as simple as fixing a coffee maker requires grounding the plane—and a whopping $30,000. Monthly Wi-Fi charges run into the deep five figures. And outfitting an aircraft with silverware, bedding, and electronics exceeds $100,000. (Much of it gets stolen.)
Another issue that makes the staff squish their stress balls? Donald Trump. Weather and mechanical issues are the main causes for delays and cancelations, which evolve into costly repositioning of flights or empty legs. But the [former] president’s chronic tardiness—far worse than other heads of state—is the third-worst hindrance to on-time departures, with Air Force One shutting down massive swaths of airspace for long stretches. Even time machines have limits.