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Prince Al Waleed's A380 palace with wings
Source: BI-ME , Author: BI-ME staff
Posted: Tue November 13, 2007 12:00 am

SAUDI ARABIA. Putting an end to months of speculation, Airbus announced on Monday that the Saudi billionaire had become the first VIP customer for the A380 superjumbo jet, the winged colossus that the European plane maker prices at just over US$300 million.

Prince Al Waleed, who currently makes do with a customised Boeing 747-400, signed the contract for a new flying palace at a ceremony with senior Airbus executives at the Dubai Air Show. He expects to take delivery in 2010.

With its 240-foot double-deck fuselage and 262-foot wingspan, the 560-ton A380 dwarfs the rides of the world’s most powerful leaders. In comparison, Air Force One, the US presidential jet, is a relatively modest conveyance, a Boeing 747-200 weighing just 333 tons.

“This is a very overt sign of the tremendous wealth that’s being created in the Middle East these days,” said Doug McVitie, Managing Director of Arran Aerospace, a consultancy in Dinan, France. With oil prices edging toward US$100 a barrel, he said, building private jumbo jets for Arab customers “is definitely a growing market.”

Saudi Arabia may be the biggest oil-producing nation, but oil is not the main source of Prince Waleed’s fortune, which Forbes magazine estimates to be US$20.3 billion. The prince, 52, controls Kingdom Holding, an enterprise with stakes in scores of blue-chip companies, like Citigroup, the News Corporation and the Walt Disney Company. The company, based in Riyadh, also owns stakes in some of the world’s most prestigious hotels, including the George V in Paris and the Savoy in London.

Prince Waleed has declined to discuss his plans for outfitting his superjumbo. But Lufthansa Technik, a subsidiary of Lufthansa Airlines in Hamburg that designs and builds aircraft interiors, has already drawn up sample floor plans.

The company’s computer models include a bedroom, office, bathroom and wellness area in the back of the plane’s upper deck, along with two guest rooms equipped with showers. A private lounge with numerous divans as well as a modern galley and buffet are laid out in the front section.

The main deck is reserved for meeting rooms, a dining room and a spacious royal lounge. The rear section would feature first- and business-class style seats for courtiers, advisers and other staff.

Industry analysts estimate that manufacturers produce as many as 1,000 private airliners a year, with sales during the next decade predicted to reach as much as US$200 billion.

But most of the planes are relatively small craft made by the likes of Cessna, Gulfstream and Dassault, which sell for around US$2 million to US$5 million. Both Airbus and Boeing offer VIP versions of the A320 and the 737, which sell for around US$70 million.

With its 6,460 square feet of floor space, customising an A380 for private use represents a significant investment in itself. The US$300 million Airbus price tag does not include the cost of the plane’s interiors, which can run into hundreds of millions of dollars, limited only by a buyer’s own extravagance.

“The very size of the A380 allows the VIP to customise the airplane and to spend far more on the interior than on the aircraft itself,” McVitie said. “It’s a huge canvas to work with.”

Prince Waleed reportedly travels with an average entourage of around 50 people, far fewer than the nearly 900 seats that can be squeezed into an A380 with an all-economy class configuration.



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