The Irish high-flyer who handles the jet set
Peter Le Bas, a graduate of Rathmines College of Commerce, left a recession-hit Dublin in 1985 to pursue acting in Hollywood. Now he’s a handler for the stars
PAMPERING THE JET SET can be tricky. Indulging whims, tempers and egos means promising the impossible.
“Celebrities are very high maintenance,” says Peter Le Bas, an Irishman whose business charters private jets for household names. “A-listers expect to walk through airports and step on to an aeroplane. Immigration, customs, anything that stalls them along the way is the biggest problem in the world.”
Based in Shannon and California, Le Bas International handles the aviation demands of film stars, bands, royalty, heads of state, Fortune 500 companies and sports teams.
It starts with procuring the right aircraft, whether it’s a long-term lease for Lady Gaga’s Monster Ball tour or getting Brad Pitt on the nearest jet, and then overseeing every add-on demanded. As chief executive, Le Bas travels on many of the high-profile trips himself so he can be on hand to diffuse everything from fears of flying to logistical nightmares. Occasionally, it involves dealing with overexuberant stars.
“We’ve had some of the top A-listers get rowdy to the point where the aeroplane has to land [unexpectedly]. When that happens it becomes a bigger issue. You can’t mess on aeroplanes anymore. The captain just won’t put up with it. Thirty-thousand feet isn’t the place to go crazy; you’re better off getting a boat if you’re going to do that,” he says.
“But, honestly, rock’n’roll has changed a bit from the old days. The older bands now have their grandchildren with them, so they’re just looking for a comfortable bed to sleep in, whereas before they’d be up for days, throwing televisions out of hotel windows. They’ve realised they have to pay for it now.”
Le Bas, a 47-year-old from Rathgar in Dublin, recently oversaw the opening of Madonna’s MDNA tour in the Middle East. Though the singer’s exhibitionism in Istanbul generated headlines, behind the scenes Le Bas ensured the shows weren’t scuppered over bureaucratic entanglements and the sort of last-minute orchestrations most people would lose sleep over. “When 100,000 people are showing up in a stadium to see this one singer, there are ways around it,” he says with a grin. “You treat it as if it’s of national importance.”
Madonna’s crew, Le Bas explains, is the kind of organisation that puts performers through two-hour daily workouts. So when they decide that switching airports shortly before take-off will save 30 minutes’ transit time, he doesn’t question it – even if it means rearranging the flight plans, landing permits and handlers for two aircraft.
“As long as the client knows what they want, we can make it happen,” he says. “We have to answer the phone within 20 seconds, day or night. You’ll never get a voicemail or be sent around in circles. So if you call and say, ‘I need to get out of here as soon as possible,’ we’ll probably be able to move just about anywhere in two hours. If it’s LA, we can do it within 30, 40 minutes from the word go – and that’s getting the crew out and the aeroplane fuelled.”
The idea to target the entertainment industry with a high-end jet brokerage developed when Le Bas left a recession-hit Dublin in 1985 to pursue acting in Hollywood – a passion instilled by his uncle Albert, a well-known magician, and his father, Ronald, once a puppeteer. (The surname stems from French Huguenots who emigrated to Ireland as silversmiths in the 17th century.)
Struggling to break through in acting, Le Bas found work as a limousine driver, chauffeuring elderly women and hoping his name would come up in the green-card lottery. By 1988 he had his own limousine company, building a client base that included the Oscars, the Grammys and the MTV awards.
Two years later, at the age of 25, he founded Le Bas International with Tracey Deakin, a friend experienced in aviation, and Patrick Hampton, an old classmate from Rathmines College of Commerce. Driven by a need to survive, Le Bas spent years canvassing clientele, earning trust and waiting for the competition to slip up.
Attention to detail has been crucial. The Rolling Stones, Le Bas says, favour a jet lined with red velvet. Another popular choice is a Boeing 737 stripped out to fit a lengthy bar, dining area and kidney-shaped putting green. “When you step on board, the captain hands you a putter and says, ‘I’ll keep it very steady.’ ”
For one 50th birthday party a customer in Los Angeles brought his friends to Ireland on a 747 with 96 first-class seats, a master bedroom upstairs, two chefs and à la carte entertainment.
“When you think of these characters it’s hard to imagine why somebody would do that. Then you figure, here’s a guy who’s probably been making millions of dollars every year since he was 30. That money will have accumulated and he’s probably thinking, This is one week; so what? – $2 million dollars? Pah! That’s how they look at it. But that’s a one-off, really. Surprisingly enough, very few people do it for the luxury.”
It’s not cheap – taking a small jet from Dublin to Cannes starts at €7,764 – and, while the recession has affected the scale of aircraft requested, the demand for efficiency remains.
In Hollywood, Le Bas has learned over the years, loyalty is everything. This is why he won’t divulge the exploits he’s witnessed, though he does let one story slide about the former taoiseach Bertie Ahern.
“He’s a bit of a white-knuckle flyer,” Le Bas begins, outlining an attempt to keep a late-night fuel stop in remote Africa as brief and discrete as possible – only to watch Ahern quickly disembark and instigate an impromptu party with the locals. “A good hour and a half later I had to drag him out of there,” Le Bas says, laughing.
Pressed for more, he simply peers through his designer glasses with a look of steadfast reserve, reiterating the point that whatever happens on the plane stays on the plane. “The entertainment industry is a tight business,” he says. “They need to work with people they trust, people who won’t blow fuses under pressure. Once you get in the door and prove yourself, they’ll keep you forever.”