Rather quietly in what is usually a publicity-oriented industry, the king of aerospace firms has begun selling the Boeing Business Jet (BBJ), a 737-700 jetliner, which normally seats about 125 passengers, modified into a corporate aircraft for the use of a few executives or even just one person. Boeing delivered the first fully completed (that is, including customized interior) BBJ in September 1999, to a buyer whose identity Boeing will not disclose. The company has 33 BBJs at various stages in the manufacturing process, and says it holds orders for 56 more. The aircraft costs from $43 million to $48 million, depending on the level of interior trim—mahogany and marble push up the final price tag—plus at least $5.1 million for annual fixed costs and at least $1,400 per hour to operate. Concerned about market share, Airbus recently announced a competitor, the Airbus Corporate Jetliner (ACJ). This is an entire Airbus 319, also normally seating about 125, converted for a few VIPs. With the economy flush, aviation analysts consider the ultra-premium executive birds a significant growth arena for aircraft manufacturers, representing a sales market of several billion dollars annually. Boeing has already begun taking advance orders for the BBJ-2, an even bigger, more expensive executive airliner, based on the larger 737-800, which is now under development.

Who’s lining up to buy these airborne ego platforms? General Electric and the golfer Greg Norman are the only publicly announced U.S. customers for the BBJ. Most buyers are assumed to be Fortune 500 companies, but “have chosen to remain anonymous, which is often typical of private business jet transactions,” Boeing says. Headed into that next labor negotiation, the CEO might not want it known that he’s just spent $48 million in company funds on a personal toy.

Once first-class seating aboard commercial flights was seen as sufficient for the wealthy or for senior corporate management. Then the minimum became small private jets like the Gulfstream, which themselves cost millions annually to own and operate. But now a mere Gulfstream will simply no longer do. After all, mere Gulfstreams don’t offer the flying equivalent of hotel suites. The Boeing Business Jet does.

The new airplane is available configured as a flying penthouse, with dual king-bed chambers, an entertaining area with leather conversation pit, even an exercise studio. TWO BDRMS STRATOSPHERE VU, $48 million—it makes East Side real estate seem like a bargain. There’s an alternative BBJ cabin configuration with one bedroom for the CEO, adjoining a full-sized corporate boardroom layout where the yes-men sit waiting at a full-sized conference table. And perhaps you’d like to add options such as onboard satellite communications. For its part, Airbus offers the ACJ with a glistening chrome oversized bathroom that looks like something that would be considered overdone at the Helmsley Palace.

Care to imagine the experience of flying the BBJ? Your limo drives out onto the tarmac and straight to the plane’s stairway, just as if you were secretary of state. One of the key perks of corporate jets is that they park at the private aviation terminal, allowing limos to pull up directly to the aircraft, no lines and no brushing shoulders with the unwashed. No humiliating bending over slightly as you must do when boarding a Lear Jet or Falcon or any other previous executive aircraft; sales material for the Boeing Business Jet boast that for a mere $48 million, you get to stand up straight. A fawning staff greets you by name, and let’s hope the private flight attendants are former state beauty queens: considering what the shareholders are spending for your airborne comfort, no sense scrimping on aesthetics. Half a dozen crew members may be aboard, for you alone—one ego-stroking aspect of the BBJ is that compared to a Gulfstream, it requires a much larger flight staff standing by at the CEO’s call. The moment you nod the BBJ is wheels-up, no annoying schedules or waiting for other passengers.

Aloft, you’ve got an entire conference area to stretch out in, or a king-sized bed to relax on as you watch a widescreen TV. You grab a quick workout on the Cybex machines. Need Evian? Snap your fingers and the flight attendant will bring it. No trouble getting the attendant’s attention since you are, after all, the only passenger on the entire airliner. Afterward you freshen up in the full-sized shower, then enjoy a connoisseur’s meal served in the dining room. You can linger over the coffee, since extra fuel tanks allow the BBJ to fly about 12 hours nonstop. And don’t worry about spilling the cognac—the BBJ has been modified to cruise at 41,000 feet, where the air is smoother than at the altitudes used by commercial airliners.

Sitting in the conversation pit, you can key the fancy electronics to send airborne orders to corporate divisions; where better to plot a takeover than aloft in your personal airliner? Or perhaps you can rehearse the lines you will employ to justify the cost of this extravagance when the shareholders find out. Something about productivity. That’s it, you’ll say something about productivity.

In the 1960s, Hugh Hefner was widely lampooned for converting an entire Boeing 727, the Big Bunny, into his own private airliner. In the 1970s and 1980s, oil-country princes were ridiculed for the same indulgence. Now Boeing and Airbus are quietly promoting the idea that every CEO needs an entire airliner, a plane large enough and expensive enough to make him feel like he is riding Air Force One. The Boeing Business Jet—the perfect place for the modern executive to dash off that memo cutting health-care benefits.

Gregg Easterbrook a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly is a senior editor at The New Republic

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Gregg Easterbrook

Gregg Easterbrook has published three novels and eight nonfiction books, mostly recently It’s Better Than It Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear. He was an editor at the Washington Monthly from 1979 to 1981.