A luxury Birmingham airline which transports VIPs around the world missed out on the chance to fly the Rolling Stones in style after refusing to allow one of the ageing rockers to smoke on board.
Cello Aviation, which flew the Queen to Ireland in a visit that made history in 2011, and more recently transported Coldplay during the band’s European tour, said it had to reluctantly turn the legendary band down.
Discussions between the airline and the band’s travel representatives ended in stalemate over whether one of the band would be allowed to smoke on board.
Speaking at the launch of Cello’s new aircraft, Vince Essex, executive commercial manager for the airline based at Birmingham Airport, said: “We don’t allow smoking and one of them likes to smoke.
“That was a bit of a bone of contention.
“I remember their travel agent saying ‘can they smoke on board?’ and I said ‘no we don’t allow that’.”
Although the preliminary discussions with the airline did not reveal which Rolling Stone wanted to spark up mid flight, founder member Keith Richards has been an avowed tobacco devotee for decades.
The 69-year-old hellraising guitarist, who is frequently seen smoking a cigarette while playing with the band on stage, famously slammed the Government’s ban on smoking in public areas in 2008.
Comparing the ban to the US prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s he branded it “politically correct bulls**t”.
Mr Essex said the matter was not up for discussion, though he did admit it was a shame Cello did not get to add the Stones to its VIP roster, which has seen the likes of Jennifer Lopez and Christina Aguilera among its famous passengers.
“We thought we would get some corporate work but I don’t think we expected the Queen, J Lo or Coldplay would use us,” said Mr Essex. “But they have and they have loved it.”
Mr Essex said an increase in touring activity in the music business had been a bonus.
“In the music industry people are not making money any more from recordings and downloads, they are making money from touring,” he said.
“That means they are touring more than ever before and we are picking up money from that.
“In terms of the number of businesses and clientele we have flown it has far exceeded expectations.
“We were probably only forecasting flying 400 to 500 hours a year and we’re on course this year to do 600 hours – a good 150 hours on top of what we forecast to fly.”
Among the airline’s best customers are Premier League football teams, most of whom have used Cello to travel to domestic or European fixtures, or on warm weather training trips.
The airline was also used by the Republic of Ireland football team during the Ukraine/Poland Euro 2012 tournament and the Swedish national team has also availed of its services.
Mr Essex said the airline also endeavours to accommodate customers’ special requests wherever possible, doing everything from rearranging seats into a facing club four in order to facilitate a game of cars for Coldplay to finding a specific brand of wine called Cakebread for Christina Aquilera.
Other clients have included the GB Olympic football team and the Lithuanian basketball team.
Despite the big names from the world of entertainment and sport, Mr Essex said taking the Queen to Ireland was its proudest moment yet.
It was a sentiment echoed by Dean Hull, cabin services manger, who looked after Her Majesty during her historic flight.
“She was really lovely and made you feel very relaxed,” said Mr Hull. “It was like having you grandmother on board and it was amazing to be a part of history going in to Dublin.”
• Cello Aviation has more than doubled its capacity in response to increasing demand in the VIP charter market, with the addition of a second aircraft.
The VIP airline’s new RJ 85 complements a BAE 146 it has been operating since it was launched in 2009. The original aircraft can carry 46 passengers, while Cello’s second plane seats 82. As well as offering additional seats the new aircraft also boasts an extended range and can travel all over Europe and to North Africa.
“It gives us about another hour’s range and opens up new markets,” said Cello’s executive commercial manager Vince Essex.
The airline sees growth coming in part from its existing work with Premier League football teams, through an increased number of flights in Europe and taking larger contingents to matches.
It has also carved out a growing niche for itself by transporting car dealers and journalists to international car launches, working with firms like Audi and Renault among others.
The airline is part of the West Bromwich-based Gill Group of companies, founded by Raj Gill. Its portfolio also includes a company that constructs concrete runways, a plant hire firm and a builders’ merchants.
Cello spent £1.5 million renovating its first aircraft and, as Mr Essex said: “hit the ground running in the depths of the recession”.
Its turnover will around £3.5 million this year, a figure which it expects to double in the next 12 months. Mr Essex said this year was its first in profit, in line with a “typical business cycle”.
The airline, which saw its bookings double in 2012, is currently evaluating new market opportunities as part of its mid and long term plans. It says it has plans to add more aircraft and create additional jobs.
So far five new crew roles have been created following the purchase of its new aircraft, though this figure could rise.