The Politics of Private Planes

Personal jets have become the source of much envy and expense. And for a growing number in the industry, they’re now the only way to fly

Access to a private jet has become the unspoken, high-status business tool in the entertainment industry. For some, it’s even becoming more important than money.

Don’t believe it?

Consider that Jeffrey Katzenberg, as CEO of the newly public DreamWorks Animation, earns only $1 per year in salary, but is assured of never having to fly commercial. His contract specifies that “all studio business-related travel by (Katzenberg) shall be by private jet.” In his case, that would be in a sleek $25 million Gulfstream IV — or simply G-IV to those in the know.

The use of a private jet has become a defining perk in corporate hierarchy among studio executives and movie stars, as well as a touchy issue for shareholders.

Traveling on the studio jet — or as Dustin Hoffman dubbed it, “the smarter charter” — has been a standard deal point for A-list movie stars for more than a decade. For studio execs, not being able to order up the plane is worse than being left off the invitation list to Herb Allen’s summer retreat.

“In all truthfulness,” says one senior studio executive, “not flying commercial is worth more than a hefty raise for me.”

For most producers, agents, directors and writers, landing a seat is usually a question of hitching a ride with a star or an executive. Owning your own jet is still reserved for the financial elite. Steven Spielberg and Sumner Redstone (through Viacom) each own a Global Express, a top-of-the-line $45 million jet with satellite TV that comfortably transports 18 people. Gulfstream V owners include David Geffen and Jim Carrey, while Tom Cruise owns a newer G-IV and Michael Ovitz has an older one. Rupert Murdoch flies in a Boeing Business Jet, as does Kirk Kerkorian, who also owns an MD-80. Then there is Paul Allen, who is in a whole different league. The Microsoft co-founder and principal backer of DreamWorks owns two customized 767s (which seat more than 250 passengers when used by a commercial airline) and a G-V.

There are also pilot-owners. Sydney Pollack flies himself and his collaborators in his own Citation X, the fastest passenger jet on the market. Though the cabin of the Citation X is relatively small and seats just eight, the plane flies 600 mph, high above the storm clouds at 50,000 feet.

Travolta’s home is an airport

Aviation buff John Travolta pilots his own Gulfstream II and, more impressively, a customized 707, which Travolta acquired as part of his deal promoting Qantas Airlines. More remarkably, Travolta also has a fly-in/fly-out house in Ocala, Fla., where he lands his planes on a private runway, taxis right up to the house, and parks in two oversize carports just steps from his front door.

“Aviation has actually helped me as an actor because I’ve been able to travel the world and meet more people, and this has helped me create characters,” Travolta says.

Educational benefits aside, traveling by private jet also has its conveniences. The plane waits for you, the food is catered, no one hassles you about two carry-ons, there are no security lines, and check-in is simply showing your driver’s license to the pilot, if that. And talk about avoiding the paparazzi: At many airports, the limo drives onto the tarmac and drops passengers off and picks them up at the plane.

Not surprisingly, flying privately is often referred to as the addiction for which there is no 12-step program. Although business was growing well before 9/11, the use of private jets has jumped markedly since, crowding normally small- and medium-size Southern California airports like Van Nuys and Santa Monica, as well as industry destinations like Aspen, Colo. NetJets, a popular fractional ownership program, saw its business climb 33% from 2003 to 2004.

Private jets typically use airports with little or no commercial traffic, limiting delays. In the New York area, Teterboro in New Jersey is the airport of choice. Sony Aviation even has a miniterminal at Teterboro, which is 12 miles from lower Manhattan.

So prevalent are private jets coming into Santa Monica that one important lure in MGM’s move to Century City in 2002 was the fact that industryites would fly right past its lion logo in making their descent into the airport.

“I feel a teenie bit spoiled when I fly private,” says one senior studio executive, “but doing it all the time does make a difference in terms of how people around town see you.”

Flying privately doesn’t free passengers from all hassle. Harrowing experiences still occur, like the crash in December of a plane carrying NBC executive Dick Ebersol. In the rush to get to the Sundance Film Festival this year, VIPs and their peeps descended en masse on Utah, but fog forced air-traffic controllers to divert flights to other nearby airports. (Delta’s commercial flights, however, were able to land just fine.) Brian Grazer’s chartered jet had worse problems. Minutes before landing, an electrical fire broke out in the plane, which was also carrying Universal’s Scott Stuber and Imagine’s Michael Rosenberg. Grazer told a friend that next time he’d just fly Delta.

The making of the jet set

Private travel has an entertainment industry precedent. In the days when David O. Selznick and other industry moguls would rent private rail cars to travel across country. The modern Hollywood jet-set age was initiated by Steve Ross, the late Time Warner chairman. In the early ’90s, Time Warner owned a fleet of seven planes, and Ross’ frequent-flyer club included Clint Eastwood, Spielberg and Barbra Streisand, as well as Warner studio chiefs Terry Semel and Bob Daly.

“Steve Ross really created the system of studios paying for stars to travel in private jets, and it’s escalated from there,” says Glenn Hinderstein, vice president of NetJets, who used to work at Warner Bros. Records. “Ross created a business tool of wooing actors with planes. The model has changed, but it’s still about taking care of stars.”

Which actors get the jet and which are stuck flying first class on United (sitting next to a journalist who has upgraded) is on a case-by-case, deal-by-deal, film-by-film basis.