I’m lounging on a leather sofa in a Gulfstream G450, sipping champagne and dining on fresh curls of smoked salmon, as the small luxury jet cruises through clear, blue air, well above the polluted skies between Shanghai and Beijing.
It’s not a dream. After years of wondering what it might be like to fly on your own jet, I’ve lucked out with an invitation to fly to Beijing to check out the renovations to the Peninsula Hotel in China’s capital.
My companions are five other travel journalists and the Peninsula PR team. I don’t need to play it cool and control my excitement – the other journalists have never been on a private jet either.
So it’s OK to act like a kid on her first merry-go-round ride. Except that this one comes with a flight attendant, three pilots and a speed of 800kmh, the same as a commercial 737.
Just to be totally pretentious, we’ve been driven to Shanghai airport in the Peninsula’s Rolls-Royces. We circumvent the main airport before arriving at a separate VIP holding area. Here, our luggage is transferred directly to the plane. We’re shown to a lounge with coffee and tea making facilities, and a car-size display of faux flowers. There’s no champagne – yet.
Our passports are also taken: we don’t need to worry about immigration. After a while, we go through a security screening (no lines, no waiting) and board a minibus, which has a red carpet emblazoned with “Thursday”, just in case we forget what day it is. (When we come back the next day, it says “Friday”.)
I’m missing something and for a moment I wonder what that might be. Finally, I realise: this scenario is not complete without a small white dog tucked under my arm. I have the big sunglasses.
We travel for a while around the tarmac, past dozens of private jets – 2016 is the first time China has overtaken the US in the number of billionaires, (568 v 535) and a few of them clearly park their jets here. Air Charter Service, which charters many jets in China, says the problem these days is getting a take-off and landing slot in Chinese cities. Hong Kong has an average of 25 private jets touching down daily.
We have our slot and the pilots and flight attendant greet us at the plane, which is trim and pointy-nosed like a fighter jet. We board after they indulge us with time to take lots of photographs of each other.
Inside, the jet is all caramel leather and burled walnut. It’s not claustrophobic, as I feared. There are two couches, seating four, and another eight individual chairs, which swivel, I discover when I play with a lever. (Many giggles from the others). There’s a TV screen in the arm-rest and a large pull-out table for dining or working. The windows are oval with folded blinds, which have graduations of light control.
Four of us opt for the couches, as it’s a novelty, but when we take off, the force of the jet pushes us sideways. The thrust is incredible, as is the taxiing time – about 20 seconds by my reckoning. (I might be wrong about this, but it was quick.) Yet it’s whisper-quiet inside.
I move to a chair for lunch, which is three courses, served with Christofle cutlery and the obligatory champagne. We pass through some weather, but the flight doesn’t seem any bumpier than if we were on a 737. It’s remarkably smooth. I’d always worried about travelling on small planes like these, but they’re steady as bullets.
When I get up to go to the loo, which is at the back, it takes me a while to find it. It’s hidden under a padded seat, like a throne. That seems appropriate.
The best thing is, four of us get a return flight to Shanghai, with a Chinese banquet catered by the Peninsula and more champagne.
How much would this cost me if I took a few friends to Beijing from Shanghai? The people at Air Charter Services, a 25-year-old family business, tell me it would run to about $3000 one-way.
Hmm. It’s not likely to happen again in my lifetime. But I’ve been spoiled forever.