Private jets gain traction with NYC's real estate elite

Industry pros take to the skies with clients
By Jane Timm | September 01, 2013 07:00AM
Architect Ross Adam Cole with his four-seater Mooney

Architect Ross Adam Cole with his four-seater Mooney

New York’s real estate moguls are flying high — and not just because of the fast-moving market.

Once prohibitively expensive, private jets are now an increasingly popular option among real estate bigwigs, industry sources said, as a growing number of executives buy and rent their own planes.

Industry insiders said flying private is not only a crucial time-saver, but an invaluable way to bond with clients.

Brown Harris Stevens’ Hamptons broker Christopher Burnside, for example, has his pilot’s license and owns share in a small Cessna. He said he uses it for transportation, taking aerial shots of his listings, and entertaining clients.

“Some people play tennis, other people play golf. I fly,” he said. “If you take somebody up in your plane and you have that kind of relationship, they’re not going to go somewhere else and buy a house.”

Friendly skies

Private planes were once strictly the province of the very rich and famous. But the growing popularity of jet brokerage companies, which commission private jets for customers on an hourly basis, has made flying private accessible to more people.

That includes real estate professionals. In June, for example, developer Cape Advisors chartered a seaplane to fly journalists from Manhattan to the Hamptons for a tour of its Watchcase Factory condo development in Sag Harbor.

Richard Zaher, the founder of Virginia-based Paramount Business Jets, estimated that the number of real estate brokers, developers and owners using his company has risen 20 to 30 percent in the last year.

Of course, private jet travel doesn’t come cheap: it costs roughly $2,500 an hour to rent a six-passenger Learjet 35, or $4,200 an hour for a Gulfstream IV that comfortably seats 14.

Still, Zaher said, the numbers make sense: in some cases, flying groups of executives privately can actually be cheaper than buying commercial tickets for each of them.

Flying solo

Of course, some wealthy real estate magnates own or even fly their own plane. Boston Properties’ Mort Zuckerman reportedly owns a $60 million Gulfstream G550. Donald Trump’s jet of choice is his Boeing 757, which reportedly cost $100 million and fits 43 people. It’s said to have a private bedroom (with lots of closet space) for the Trump family.

For many of these moguls, private planes aren’t just an over-the-top luxury. While owning a jet is expensive — operating a plane costs hundreds of dollars an hour when the plane is in the air — flying enthusiasts say the increased mobility a plane provides is worth the cost.

Adam Ross Cole, founder of Manhattan-based BAM Architecture Studio, got his pilot’s license on his 16th birthday, months before he secured a driver’s license. But flying isn’t just a hobby — he said his firm’s four-seater Mooney plane allows him to visit project sites, and the firm’s North Carolina office, more frequently than he would if he were limited to driving or commercial flying.

“We have to go where the project sites are, and the project sites are all over the place,” the architect said. “Right now, we have work from Florida to Boston. To get there, I use my airplane.”

He also uses the plane to entertain clients. “I can take clients out to Martha’s Vineyard for an afternoon, instead of a restaurant in Midtown,” he said. “That helps keep the relationship fresh and fun.”

Cole added that the plane allows the firm to save money on hotel and other travel fees, something that helps justify the expense. Cole declined to say what he paid for his plane, but high-end Mooneys retail for $500,000 to $650,000, according to Plane & Pilot magazine.

Billionaire developer and entrepreneur Jeff Greene said traveling via his Cessna Caravan seaplane saves him valuable time.

Though Greene has homes in Palm Beach and the Hamptons, much of his business is in Manhattan, including two new condominium projects he’s developing, at 100 Vandam Street and 576 Broome Street.

Without a plane, Greene’s commute to Manhattan from his waterfront compound near Sag Harbor could take more than three hours. But by plane, the trip is just 35 minutes — the Cessna lands on the bay outside his home. In fact, Greene got the idea to buy the plane after seeing that musician Jimmy Buffett was landing his plane on the same bay.

High-end Caravan seaplanes typically cost more than $2 million, though Greene too declined to comment on how much he paid.

He employs two full-time pilots for the plane, and is working to get the necessary certification to rent it when he isn’t using it, which Greene said he hopes will turn a profit — or at least cut down on the overhead costs. For now, Greene said, he and his wife use it for roughly 40 to 50 hours a month for themselves and their friends.

“We have cell phone service for most of the time, too,” Greene said of traveling by plane. “It’s been a wonderful asset.”