In Vanity Fair’s December issue, special correspondent William D. Cohan explores how private jets became the singular fetish and status marker of the modern super rich—allowing those who use them to exist in a class of their own. He also examines how the private jet is used to form covalent bonds of the kind that pay off later—and to the acquisitive class, just about the only kind that matter.
As Cohan notes, the appeal is clear: Setting foot on the tarmac confers an irresistible, intoxicating feeling of specialness. Avoiding security is the very definition of modern luxury, marking a bright line between private-jet owners and their lucky guests, and the merely rich.
“It’s like the folded shirts in The Great Gatsby,” Cohan remembers being told by a private-equity executive on a flight earlier in his career when working at Chase Bank. “No one else has them. No one else can afford them.”
Private air travel dazzles everyone, writes Cohan, and once you fly this way, you’re hooked. Current and former presidents like to ride on private jets: Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Donald Trump (who has placed a model of one of the two yet-to-be-configured Air Force Ones smack-dab in the middle of the Oval Office), Harvard scientists, Nobel Prize winners, narcissistic defense attorneys love to fly private too. Cohan points out that one of the revelations of the Jeffrey Epstein scandal is the degree to which the private jet has become the definitive, highly overdetermined artifact of modern super money culture.
The history of private jet travel does not stretch back too far in time. Big corporations such as Xerox, GE, and IBM were the early adopters of private-jet travel, Cohan writes. They realized that it was a productivity tool, allowing executives to travel around the country safely and unimpeded, visiting plants and facilities not easily reached by commercial jets. He also outlines the evolution of Gulfstream, as well as how a new wave of corporate raiders, junk-bond financiers, high-profile investment bankers and execs in the private-equity and hedge fund industries all established fertile ground for the private jet market to emerge in the 1980’s.
Cohan explains how the annual costs can stack up for each special jet set, such as the cost of pilots, flight attendants, housing, and maintenance. (Then, of course, there is the cost of the helicopters needed to get from Manhattan to airports in such places as Farmingdale, Long Island, or Teterboro.) The pilots and crews on these planes get to travel widely and see how the other half lives, of course. But as Cohan explains in the article, it’s no picnic.
Private jets have become an essential element of the modern superrich business and pleasure infrastructure, woven in deeply, the communal living space for the most acquisitive, rapacious people in the world. And, while it is deeply uncommon to actually own a private jet, there are more than 5,000 airports that serve private jets in the United States, compared to over 400 commercial airports. For all of the gloss and glitter obtained from an insider’s look into the world private jets, not everyone is as turned on by the sexualization of wealth produced by the g-forces of a high-end jet. Anand Giridharadas, the best-selling author of “Winners Take All,” argues that this phenomenon is a problem.
“Let me address this to anybody who has felt the need to buy an airstrip in New Zealand to feel safe,” he says. “If you feel the need to buy an airstrip in New Zealand to feel safe, you may not be living right. You may not be running your business right. You may not be paying your taxes properly. Like if you need a James Bond–like escape plan from the potential rage of the public, the thing that might make you even safer than that airstrip is asking yourself how you have been complicit in the public getting so angry and how you can help reverse it. Just a thought. Or do it your way.”
**Read “The Ways of the Jet Cult” by William D. Cohan on VanityFair.com.