You will never, ever take another flight like this. Launched last month, Crystal Skye is the world's largest private charter jet — a converted Boeing 777 that accommodates just 88 passengers, rather than the usual 300 or so.
The first aircraft launched by Crystal Cruises, which until now has focused on offering luxurious experiences at sea, it costs in the region of £43,000 ($80,000) an hour to charter and is unlike anything else in the sky, according to the Daily Telegraph.
The front of this 200LR-type 777 is taken up by a comfortable 24-seat restaurant, bar and lounge that (with apologies to Sir Richard Branson) make the Virgin Atlantic version look like a hot-dog stand. In the rear is a state-of-the-art gourmet galley and a 200-bottle wine cellar said to be the largest on any aircraft, anywhere.
There are smaller, less glitzy versions of this kind of jet, such as the single-aisle Boeing 757s used by Four Seasons and Abercrombie & Kent for their private-jet tours, where you buy your way on board by the seat. But these aircraft lack the expansive areas for social mingling that make flying at the super-luxury end of the market such fun. The likes of Aman Resorts and China's Deer Jet do offer private-jet tours on aircraft configured with executive-style accommodation, complete with bedrooms, board tables and living-room areas. But while these jets are beautiful, they're more oriented to one VIP and their guests. Who gets the bedroom? Who gets the best seats?
With Skye, all of its 88 commodious lounger seats are the same - and each one is convertible into a 6ft 2in bed. This makes it ideal for trips on which everyone is a VIP, such as destination weddings, where the families of both bride and groom need to be treated equally well. Skye is also likely to appeal to sponsors of high-profile events such as the Olympics, Grand Slam tennis tournaments and the World Cup, who can shuttle key clients to and from the venues in style.
And that style, and attention to detail, extend to every corner. During my tour, executive chef Francois Van Zyl - an alumnus of Etihad Airways' award-winning flying-chef programme - marvels over the tools at his disposal, including blenders, frothers, steamers and a sous-vide cooker.
"Steaks can be grilled, fish can be poached and ice cream churned, even at 40,000 feet," he enthuses.
Each guest is invited to specify their food preferences and can eat whenever they fancy, either in their seat or in the dining room. Van Zyl says he'll also be keeping a chef's cart with "secret ingredients" that he can draw on to satisfy even the most finicky taste buds.
he cabin crew of a dozen Skye butlers speak more than 35 languages between them, in addition to being ready to provide a whole range of services for guests; tools they have at their disposal include steamers to get wrinkles out of your clothing and a professional shoe-shine kit to make sure you arrive looking sharp. There is also a mixologist on board, while the TVs feature multi-language programming, and there's a channel to run your own videos.
With so much to entertain you in the air, and plenty of space to party, why would you bother landing at all? Unless, of course, you're on your way to charter one of Crystal's yachts or cruise ships... which is exactly what one of her first customers is planning to do (he's having the moving maps turned off during the flight, to keep the destination a surprise for his guests).
Crystal's original aim was to use Skye for pre-scheduled private group tours. But the company realised it could maximise its profits by chartering the aircraft to wealthy individuals, businesses and groups. While its super-rich target audience liked the itineraries it promoted, Crystal found, they couldn't necessarily match the available dates with their schedules. Now, however, Crystal can put together programmes specific to its clients' demands and dates, whether they intend to fill the plane up or just take a handful of guests.
A London-to-New York flight would cost around £310,000 ($572,000), which for a group of 80 works out at about £3,900 ($7200) per head one way — about the price of a discounted first-class ticket on British Airways. Based on availability, you could even do a shorter charter, but you would have to pay the ferry fee of getting Skye to your departure airport (when in Europe, she will be based in Malta).
What you and your gang will be able to do is fly just about anywhere in the world without the need to stop for refuelling. The Boeing 777-200LR is, after all, the world's longest-range airline, and this custom-designed jet can fly nonstop for over 19 hours. And even after such a long flight, this is one plane that should deliver you to your destination even more relaxed and comfortable than when you got on board.
The dining room
In the 1970s the hottest table on earth was 35,000 feet in the air, on the upper deck of Pan Am's early Boeing 747s, where the lounge was converted into a reservations-only restaurant for first-class passengers. Crystal Skye's four immaculate oval tables in the forward zone each seats six guests (and there are seatbelts, so you won't have to return to your regular seat if you hit turbulence). How the dining room will be used is up to whoever charters the plane — whether it's tasting menus or multi-course gourmet meals. With restaurant-level equipment in the kitchen, you can expect something rather more special than normal in-flight fare; for snacking, there are two areas where you can set a buffet.
Upholstered in hand-stitched English leather, these are in a 2x2x2 configuration. Frequent fliers might say they look like business-class seats as they're forward-facing and in pairs, but that's where the comparison ends. The side and middle rows are staggered for privacy and optimum views, while allowing couples travelling together to converse easily. (The suite-style seats with closing doors found on the likes of Emirates or Singapore Airlines are not, says Crystal, conducive to couples or the social aspect they want guests to enjoy on Skye). Then there are cashmere blankets, goose-down pillows, mattress toppers and plush duvets. At your seat, you can connect to the free high-speed Wi-Fi or make a phone call. There are power plugs and USB ports, while individual 24in HD Panasonic monitors can show a library of films and shows as well as live TV and three exterior cameras. Listen with your noise-cancelling Bose headsets.
There are six proper bathrooms with large granite countertops, deep sinks so you won't get splashed, and Etro products. Crystal chose not to install showers — as found on the Emirates and Etihad Airbus A380s — as it wouldn't be viable to store enough water for all 88 guests. However, the facilities are designed along the lines of luxury bathrooms found on the company's cruise ships, with backlit mirrors and a lot of counter space. Piped-in music tinkles away while you change into your complimentary pyjamas.
There's no bumping in the aisles of Crystal Skye, although you might be able to dance in them. The double-width aisles were specifically designed so two people can pass as if walking in a hallway. When you look up, you won't see overhead bins — those along the centre have been removed to give a sense of space. Look down and you'll notice the extra-thick handwoven carpet boasts a sky-and-clouds theme.
For more information, visit crystalcruises.com/aircruises. To enquire about chartering Crystal Skye, email CrystalSkyeCharter@crystalcruises.com