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For some, it was a window into how the other half lives. For others, it was all business. For Sergej and Alison Henning, two shareholders from Chicago, it was the chance to peruse the “dream” offerings of NetJets, the Berkshire Hathaway-owned company that provides fractional ownership of luxury jets.
“Gosh,” said Alison Henning as she walked out of the Phenom 300, the company's newest aircraft, at Eppley Airfield on Saturday. “That was great.”
The Hennings were among the thousands of people who visited the NetJets static display during the Berkshire Hathaway Inc. annual meeting in Omaha. The company expected up to 5,000 people to shuttle over to the hangar of fixed-based operator Signature Flight Support where four NetJets aircraft were on display, including the company's recently announced Embraer Phenom 300 and Bombardier Global 6000.
Sergej Henning said he and his wife traveled to Omaha for their first annual meeting last year but didn't visit the NetJets display. They made it a priority this year, noting they were especially impressed with the technology and “new jet smell.” Henning admitted it's not a service they can afford at the moment.
“In the future,” he said, smiling, “we'll be in a position.”
NetJets, which has more than 700 aircraft as part of its fleet, is currently going through a major transition as it restocks its fleet with newer planes, CEO Jordan Hansell said in an interview with The World-Herald.
Starting last year, the company began renewing its fleet with $17.6 billion worth of aircraft, and that will continue over the next decade.
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Other models coming to the fleet include Bombardier Challenger models (including the 300 and 605 series), the Cessna Citation Latitude and the Bombardier Global 7000 and 8000 aircraft.
Hansell said as the economy recovers slowly, so does NetJets. He believes the fractional jet ownership model can be more economical for people and that his company is “a very good solution” for travelers looking for more flexibility. Each flier, he said, is looking for efficient, safe and personalized transportation, and that's what NetJets offers.
“We're one of the few companies in the world ... that can do it at the level we do it,” he said. “Every owner has an individual profile, from the magazine they want to newspapers, snacks, beverages, how they want to be notified of the flight. Each of that is individualized to the owner.”
While NetJets was the primary focus at Eppley on Saturday afternoon, airport officials said they've been preparing for months for the flurry of travelers who descend on Omaha for the annual meeting.
Steve Coufal, executive director of the Omaha Airport Authority, said the airport's spring cleanup of terminal, airfield, landscaping and parking facilities happens before the meeting, and they expect traffic to be as high as some of the fall and winter holidays' key travel times.
The two fixed-based operators at Eppley where passengers go to board their private jets also expected an uptick of traffic. Combined, TAC Air and Signature Flight Support expected upward of 300 private and business aircraft in and out over the weekend.
Mike Wilwerding, general manager at TAC Air, said about 15 aircraft go in and out per day during a normal weekend, and so he prepared for the busy weekend by staffing the area with his entire crew of 30 employees.
Two airlines — United Airlines and Delta Airlines — increased their service to Omaha over the weekend.
United offered a round-trip, nonstop flight between San Francisco and Omaha, and Delta added a round-trip, nonstop flight between Los Angeles and Omaha. Usually, there's no nonstop service between Omaha and either city. Combined, these aircraft can hold nearly 300 people.
In addition to a usual nonstop flight, Delta added a 757 aircraft from New York to Omaha that held 180 passengers.
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United and Delta also increased the size of existing flights over the weekend. For example, United upgraded from a 50-seat aircraft to a 155-seat aircraft for a round-trip flight between Newark, N.J., and Omaha. Delta upgraded much of its hub service by increasing most flights by up to 50 seats.
Coufal said that ultimately, the airport's priority is to ensure everyone has a safe weekend and leaves with a good impression of Omaha.
“Everyone involved here wants to make sure people traveling to and from Omaha that come through Eppley really have a safe time and an efficient time in and out,” he said. “It's a great opportunity for Omaha and great opportunity for the airport.”
Back at the NetJets display, the event wasn't all about adults. The event drew some pint-size aircraft lovers, too.
Jaken Barmore, 2, and big sister Cota Barmore, 5, bounced with excitement in the line waiting to tour the fancy jets.
“I see airplanes,” exclaimed Jaken, noting he has a green one at home and was especially loving the “big one” — the Global 6000.
Their father, Harley Barmore, who's been stationed at Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue since 2002, said his grandparents exposed him to Berkshire Hathaway, and as a plane fanatic he couldn't imagine attending the meeting without visiting the NetJets display.
This year, Barmore brought the kids to “instill in them that same capitalistic spirit” — and get his yearly NetJets fix.
“It's the dream of flying,” he said.
The Omaha World-Herald Co. is owned by Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
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