Private jets come in all shapes and sizes. While smaller aircraft, such as those from Cessna, Bombardier or Embraer, are more common, variants of commercial jets are also used. As there has not yet been a private A380, the 747 is the largest. It has seen many conversions for private use, with both government and private operators. Let’s explore further.
The 747 as a large private jet
Boeing offers its full range of commercial aircraft for private use through its Boeing Business Jet (BBJ) program. The 737 has been by far the most ordered of these, with more than 190 aircraft ordered, according to Boeing data. But the widebody 767, 777, 787, and 747 have all been offered as well.
As with any private jet, layout and designs are customized for all private aircraft. Boeing offers the aircraft empty, and interiors are designed and installed by other companies.
The 747’s upper deck has been used as a feature by many airlines. Bars and lounges were common in the early days, and later many have continued with premium cabins. In private use, this can provide a useful separate space away from the main deck.
Government aircraft might use this for staff or secure facilities like communications. In individual use, it might feature a private residential space for owners or VVIPs.
There have also been specialized developments. One of the most interesting is from Greenpoint Technologies. It has worked on 747-8s refits and has developed an innovative ‘Aeroloft’ modular addition. This provides additional private suite-style berths in an elevated additional cabin at the rear of the fuselage.
Take a look at the video below from Greenpoint to see how this works:
The 747-8 already has one of the highest ranges of any Boeing aircraft, although the smaller 777-200LR exceeds it, as will the standard 777-8 when it enters service. In a private configuration, with fewer fittings and carrying fewer passengers, its already substantial range can be increased.
Boeing quotes the private version of the 747-8 as having a range of 16,537 km (assuming a passenger capacity of 100). This is up from 14,320 km for the standard 747-8.
At least two aircraft took this even further. The VC-25A currently used for Air Force One adds the ability to refuel in the air. This has never been used in active service, however, and will not be a feature of the forthcoming VC-25B aircraft.
Orders for the 747-400 and 747-8
It is hard to determine exactly how many VIP configured, or private 747s have been, or are, in service. Much of this is not published, and many of the earlier 747s that ended up in private use were purchased second-hand or managed through leasing companies.
As a guide, Boeing stated in 2007 (as published in FlightGlobal) that 22 VIP-configured 747s were in service. And at that time, it also had orders for four new 747-8 VIP aircraft.
According to Boeing data, there have now been 10 orders for a 747-8 BBJ. All these orders were placed between 2006 and 2011.
Government and head of state aircraft
The most common use of VIP or private configured 747 is for head of state travel, or other government use. Boeing has seen strong success in this market, with several countries bringing in 747s from the 747-100/200 generation.
The success of this has been a major obstacle for the A380. Airbus originally proposed the A380 as a private option (under Airbus Corporate Jets). But with Boeing well established with the limited number of customers and the 747-8 also on offer as an upgrade, this was a difficult sell.
The A380 also suffered in commercial use due to its size and airport restrictions – this would be an even bigger limitation in flexible private use. It did receive one order, but it was never delivered.
Countries that currently have used the 747 in their VIP or head of state fleets include the US, Bahrain, Brunei, Korea, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the UAE.
Japan also operated two 747-400s until March 2019. Two 777-300ERs have now replaced them. And Yemen operated a 747SP until it was damaged in 2015.
Several other countries use 747s jointly with state airlines. These can be converted to VIP use as needed but are not dedicated aircraft. China and India have done this for many years but have both now ordered dedicated aircraft (the 747-8 for China and the 777 for India).
747s as Air Force One
Of course, the most well-known use of government use is the United States Air Force-operated 747s. These are currently two heavily modified 747-200 aircraft (designated VC-25A), and have been in service since 1990, and will soon be replaced by two new 747-8 aircraft. These were chosen under President Trump and, to reduce the cost, aircraft originally ordered by Transaero are being modified rather than the planes being newly built.
Unlike many other countries, the interior details are well known and photographed. However, much of the defense and technical modifications, of course, remain classified.
The main deck offers residence and office space for the President, following by office and meeting space for staff and a large conference room. Behind all this are separate cabins for guests and the traveling media.
There have been only a few private owners of a 747. Even for large companies, it is just too big and would rarely justify the operating costs. For corporate use, smaller aircraft, taking much smaller groups, are more practical. Private individuals likewise do not need the space, but as the largest private jet, it definitely makes an impression!
Not surprisingly, many private owners prefer to remain unnamed. A few examples have been publicized, though.
Saudi Arabian Prince Al Waleed’s 747
Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al Saud is a member of the Saudi royal family but privately owns and operates aircraft. He purchased his 747 in 2003 for $485 million (for comparison, the US VC25A aircraft cost $325 million each).
It is lavishly furnished with thick carpets, plenty of gold trim decoration, and even a large chandelier. There are luxurious bedrooms and bathrooms, a dining area for 14 people, extensive lounge areas, and a large throne.
The Prince planned to go further, with an order for a private A380 in 2007. This was designed but never developed, and the aircraft transferred to airline use. This would have been one incredible private jet, though.
The three lift-connected decks (it extended into the cargo hold) packed in a car garage, Turkish bath, relaxation room with ground views projected on the floor, dining, and prayer rooms. And the upper deck would have five private en-suite apartments for guests.
747-8 equipped by Cabinet Alberto Pinto
There have been reports of the completion of a private 747-8 order from a Middle Eastern business. French firm Cabinet Alberto Pinto designed the interior. The extensive refit took four years and was completed in 2015.
It features a master bedroom in the aircraft’s nose (as the Air Force One 747s also do). There are several more private suites on the main deck, as well as office and lounge space. The interiors were designed with simplicity in mind.
The upper deck is used for a living room area, with bookshelves, television, and a children’s play area.
In an interview with Altitudes Magazine, lead designer Pickardt explained the final result. He said:
“The owner gave us carte blanche. He wasn’t looking for anything outrageously luxurious, with gold and diamonds. On the contrary he called for some simplicity, which in the end is indeed the true luxury. One can easily recognize a strong French touch, a tribute to French Art deco and to our most famous saddle makers. We used only noble materials, all of the best quality available of course, such as wood, (African Wakapou and Sycamore), stone, wool and silk fabrics, natural leathers.”
Certainly proud of the design, he concludes beautifully, with:
“Such a project is a dream come true that happens only once or twice in a designer’s lifetime. In a way, this is a landmark in aviation history. Officials from the Boeing Company who visited the aircraft said that it may be one of the most beautiful large aircraft ever made!”
Where next for the 747?
The future for large private aircraft is interesting. There is a strong decline in the popularity and use of large four-engine jets. And of course, the production of new aircraft is ending. Boeing has confirmed the end of 747 production, with the last two cargo 747-8s now ordered. But with increasing retirements from airline fleets, there could be more chance of secondhand developments.
Twin-engine VIP transport
The last 747-8 new build business jet order was in 2011, and there won’t be anymore now. Likewise, with the A380 out of production, with no private versions ever delivered (although one was ordered).
Twin-engine widebodies are now taking over. According to Boeing data, 14 787s and six 777s have now been ordered as business jets. And Boeing has released some exciting plans for a 777X BBJ.
— Eurospot (@cliper31) March 9, 2021
The Mexican government opted to go with the Boeing 787 for its new VIP transport. However, the current president believes this is an unnecessary luxury, and has put it up for sale. As yet, it hasn’t found a buyer.
And the 767 has long been a popular choice. For those wanting the size and range of a widebody, it offers a great compromise. Simple Flying discussed this with Comlux Aviation CEO Andrea Zanetto. Comlux operates private aircraft of all sizes, and Zanetto thinks the 767 offers a lot. He said:
“There is definitely no aircraft like this in commercial operation. So there is not even competition. So it’s pretty amazing now. I think that the 767 is the aircraft that has the perfect combination of size and the number of people that you can transfer through long-range operations.
“No business jet can do 15 hours of flying. Therefore, you can transport 15 people with very good comfort. They will be arriving rested and with a great experience of flying. I would say that this is a good combination.”
Growing second-hand market
With more large aircraft retiring in 2020 and 2021, increasing second-hand availability could affect the market. This is likely to be more of a factor in the A380 market, especially as its re-sale value has now dropped 50%.
Retiring 747-400 aircraft are already nearing the end of service and are unlikely to see further VIP use. 747-8 aircraft are a possibility, but there are not many of them. We did see this with the new order from the US Air Force for replacement Air Force One aircraft.
The Trump administration selected the 747-8 but chose to acquire and refit two former Transaero 747-8 aircraft rather than build new ones. These had not entered service, though, before Transaero ceased operations.
There were some moves before the pandemic with A380 re-use, but no confirmed orders. In 2017, Geneva-based aircraft Sparfell & Partners started marketing four A380s configured as head of state aircraft, but conversions never happened. If we see more of this post-COVID, the A380 will be in a better position for conversion.
The 747 is a great aircraft, popular with airlines and private use – even if only limited. There are other private uses we have not covered here – feel free to discuss any you know in the comments. Also, do you think any more will find second-hand use?