Spending three weeks touring the world’s wonders and staying in five-star hotels is better by private jet—right?
Well, naturally. But the Four Seasons is hoping that up to 52 passengers will pay $119,000 each for the round-the-world honor on their shiny new plane. Before it took off on its maiden voyage (a shorter 16-day “Backstage With the Arts” tour round Europe’s highlights), we snuck aboard at Paris's Le Bourget airport to get a first look at the multimillion-dollar conversion and find out just how it's seeking to change the face of luxury group tours.
Let’s make this clear: The Four Seasons’ jet is no Gulfstream—it’s a reconfigured Boeing 757-200ER leased by TCS World Travel (a luxury tour operator) from TAG Aviation (which provides pilots, maintenance) and operated under the Four Seasons flag as an entrée to extravagant group excursions. And it looks downright sexy in its new shade of metallic black.
The interior went from 233 standard-size seats to 52 lie-flat seats in a 2-by-2 configuration. Each seat stretches 6.5 feet, with ample aisle and legroom, and offers 78 inches of personal space. Overhead bins are nearly double their original size (now fitting 189 bags) but take up less headspace by tucking up into the crown of the fuselage. A new bi-color LED lighting system creates a clean, calm mood in shades of violet white and soft blues.
TCS’s president Shelley Cline declined to disclose specific financial details but noted that a typical commercial refit would cost around $15 million—and this was not a typical refit. “To meet the service and design standards of the Four Seasons, we have done significantly more work,” she wrote via e-mail.
Four Seasons has been offering private jet experiences with TCS since 2012, but it’s the first private jet fully branded to the resort company, giving them much more control over service and logistics than they had chartering other people’s planes.
The idea is to apply the famous service standards of their hotels at 35,000 feet.
There are, at minimum, 21 hotel-trained crew and staff on board each Four Seasons flight, including three pilots, two engineers, a "journey manager" (travel coordinator), a concierge, and an executive chef. A physician and a photographer also come along, when adventurous itineraries—such as diving the Maldives' coral reefs or game watching in the Serengeti—require it.
Itineraries are planned to avoid long hauls. On around-the-world tours, flight times range from 3.5 hours to 8 hours, with an average of 6 hours, excluding short "hopper flights," such as Istanbul to Ephesus or Mumbai to Agra. Essentially it’s an all-first shuttle from one Four Seasons resort property to the next, shielding you from ever having to manage a single travel hassle yourself. All accommodation, meals, drinks, ground transportation, and even custom excursions are inclusive.
"I've been in prettier jets and smaller jets," Patricia Davidson, a guest on the jet's inaugural tour. She regularly charters Sunwest and NetJets but points to the guest services here as the selling point. "Visas, insurance, and itineraries were all organized with swift precision. No request went unanswered—and they were kind, respectful and playful."
That playfulness is apparent when meeting executive chef Kerry Sear, who considers the jet his restaurant in the sky.
Four Seasons chefs at the hotels provide local ingredients, which are cooked fresh in the air with an aviation-code steam oven. (Typical commercial jet-style convection ovens can only reheat, leading to typically bad in-flight meals.) Sear chats to guests during the flights and learns their preferences, then coordinates with chefs on the ground to make sure patrons get what they want in the air.
"I have to do something cool for this level of luxury—which is really all about choice," saya the chef, who was previously F&B director at Four Seasons Seattle. With his salt-and pepper goatee and humble demeanor, you kind of want to have a beer with him. And guests do. "I had a guy who just preferred Coors Light, even though we serve these lovely wines. So we stocked the plane for him, and we had a few. Why not, if it makes him happy?"
On the upscale à la carte menu, Petrossian caviar and Dom Pérignon champagne are anytime staples. But surprise dishes rotate, depending on your itinerary. Just returning from Kona, Hawaii? You might have fresh lobster salad sprinkled with macadamia nuts. Just made friends with elephants in Thailand? A dark chocolate elephant is on board waiting to greet you. It’s “airplane food” as much as typical in-flight snacks are smoked salmon canapés, fresh fruit kebabs with passion fruit sauce, or pristine petit fours.
Sleep. That ever elusive siren, for which travelers will pay obscene amounts, seems achievable on beautifully constructed, white leather seats.
(Sadly, I didn’t actually get to join these high-flyers on their European adventure—corporate policy doesn’t permit that sort of thing—but my Le Bourget tarmac tour provided hands-on intel.)
The seats are designed by Iacobucci, a favorite Italian craftsman also found aboard Lear, Gulfstream, and Cathay Pacific jets, and the seats slide smoothly and quietly from sitting upright to lying flat at a touch of a button (clearly marked on a personal control panel). Tray tables are topped in dark shellacked wood, with a roomy surface that can easily handle a heavy laptop or formally set, three-course meal. Against the white of the plane, the wood gives the interior a kind of high-speed yacht feel.
Yet somewhat disappointingly, there is no partition or privacy to protect you from unwanted chit-chat—or snoring from the robber baron next door. With two seats on each side of the aisle, these are not the enclosed enclaves of Air France's La Premiere class or Etihad's on-board bedrooms.
In fact, the ethos here is more communal in general. There may not be purpose-made social areas, such as an A-380 bar/lounge, but with three pilots on board, one is always free to chat with guests, as they are with each other. Flying with Four Seasons is a choice to meet, socialize, and share adventures with new people.
"We didn’t sleep much on the flights, because we were always having much too much fun drinking champagne and giving our neighbors nicknames,” said passenger Davidson. An interior designer from Calgary, she booked the trip to celebrate her 55th birthday and wound up forging new friendships. "We loved our space and all of the people who were surrounding us."
When you take your seat, you'll find serious stash: Bvlgari toiletry kit, cashmere blanket, Bose noise-canceling headphones, and a custom-made leather travel journal by Moleskin with matching ballpoint pen. Each guest also receives an iPad Air 2 in advance of the trip, on which you can preload music and movies as a personalized entertainment system. They’re all yours to keep.
Best part: There’s free Wi-Fi—unlike the actual hotel properties you’ll sleep at. High-speed isn’t guaranteed, but guests can visit any website and send e-mails; they just can’t stream video content while on board to ensure a good connection. (Instead, a select library of both new and contemporary films and TV shows is available to download.) Taking the tech-forward cue from newer planes, the in-flight entertainment here is as good as any.
As for the toiletries, Bvlgari is a Four Seasons favorite. And rightly so; the "au thé vert" body lotion has a very light perfume and a heavy, smooth consistency.
Women’s kits come in a white bag and include hand cream, lip balm, refreshing towels, face emulsion cleanser, hand sanitizer, breath mints, and a dental kit. The men's kits, in black, are essentially the same with the addition of aftershave balm and gel. Each comes with a soft and pillowy black-and-gold sleeping mask, as well.
The kits are small, though—even if reportedly costing $100 each—and provided twice, once at the beginning and then halfway through the journey, instead of on each leg. Run out of dental floss? An additional supply is always available. Just don’t leave your own supplies at home.
The cozy, fullsize Mongolian cashmere blanket almost makes up for this slight, but it's such a bright shade of orange, it will either keep you awake or invariably clash with your outfit.
Room for Improvement
Unlike the epic five-star commodes you can expect on the ground, the four bathrooms on board are coach-class tiny. As bright and clean, custom-designed, and suffused with Bvlgari green tea air freshener they may be, there was no wow moment here. Also a tick in the “con” column: paper towels instead of cloth. Not a big deal in the grand scheme, sure, but it’s the small details that really send luxury over the top.
"We are obsessed with space and giving our guests as much as possible. Even the most luxurious private jet has only so much room to work with," explained Dana Kalczak, Four Seasons' vice president for design.
True, there are limits. Namely: aviation law.
Four Seasons’ 757 is a commercial jet as far as airport regulators are concerned, which means you're lucky if you get to board this plane from a swank private landing and can strut like James Bond straight on to the tarmac. Pilots land in smaller civilian airports—avoiding mammoths such as Heathrow—wherever possible. So in Los Angeles, London, Paris, and Mumbai, guests are golden; Sydney and Tokyo, not so much.
If a private airport isn’t possible, Four Seasons arranges for expedited security lanes, and the jet is ready for boarding as soon as you clear security. So there’s no need to arrive three hours early and hit the lounge like the rest of us plebs (which may or may not be a benefit given some of the new lounges).
Flying the Four Seasons jet, you’re also still bound by those 3-1-1 no-big-liquids carry-on commercial security rules, which renders the spaciously redesigned overhead bins a little moot.
Sure you don’t have to be shy about bringing that Louis Vuitton trunk—this plane can handle it—but you still need to check bags. For the risk-averse, that’s worth noting, even if we can't imagine an item going missing.
These less-than-luxe details, however, aren't stopping guests from booking. The next Around the World Tour, scheduled in August—nine stops from Seattle to New York via Asia—is already sold out. Next year, the 24-day itinerary jumps to $132,000.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated the plane was a "jumbo" jet. It's in fact a mid-sized, narrow-body aircraft. In addition, the hotel brand's star rating was corrected from four to five.