The poor, the rich and the ultra-rich

The EBACE aircraft exhibition highlights a reverse North-South divide, with the rich to the South. However, that is not the whole story: the rich are also divided.

On the South side of the Geneva airport runway we have the exhibition of private jets that the manufacturers are trying to sell to the (sometimes) rich visitors. On the North side, especially on the terrace of the Aéro Bistro café, we have the hordes of aircraft spotters, complete with their binoculars, telephoto lens cameras and well-thumbed notebooks for jotting down all the business jets that they see. What unites the two communities, who we would once have described as the rich and the poor (or, less PC, as the nobs and the yobs!), is certainly the commonality of  English as the lingua franca. However, even there the peoples' accents would mostly indicate the difference: solid regional accents, with the occasional Dutch inflection, to the North, refined ones, often with an indication of country of origin, to the South.

There have been various comments on the health of the business aviation market at the moment. An article in this paper, with the headline that a private jet is no longer a rich person's toy, was relatively optimistic (although, regrettably, this article was next to one indicating that Lufthansa would be firing about 60 Swiss employees!). However, articles in other sources suggest that the state of the business jet industry in Europe is mostly fairly morose as the emphasis moves towards clients in the middle and far East.

The one ray of light in the private jet business appears to be in the high end market, aimed at the super-rich: aircraft which will cost upwards of 50 million dollars and be capable of long distance inter-continental flights. In contrast, in the low end market there is very little happening. According to a report in Le Temps, in Europe 20% of the existing fleet of private jets are up for sale, yet in the last year only 2% have actually found a buyer.

So what are the aircraft which are selling, and who is buying them (either directly or to lease out to clients)? The clue is perhaps to be found in an interview printed in Le Temps, in which the founder of VistaJet, Thomas Flohr, talks about their prospective clients as being often the directors of mining conglomerate companies (des dirigeants dans les matières premières!). It does not take too much imagination to realise that he might be thinking of people like Ivan Glasenberg of Glencore, a company based (for tax purposes) in the same Swiss canton (Zug) as Vista.

The negative side of this, for residents living around Geneva airport, is that when people who can afford to buy or hire a private jet want to depart from Geneva airport late at night they are simply allowed to do so: the departure at 11h22 pm last night of a private jet operated by the Geneva-based company Sonnig is yet another example. However, don't expect anyone to tell you why it was so late, where it went to or what make of champagne was served: such information is highly classified.

Meanwhile, to the north of the airport the Aéro Bistro spotters will enjoy their three days of beer plus steak and chips lunches and their nights in a low-cost hotel (often in nearby France) or a camper bus, before heading home, after EBACE finishes, by road or low-cost air travel. Some of them (virtually always male and with no females in close attendance) have even told me that this is their holiday for the year.

Cheers, guys!

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