Ferrari of the Sky

Sleek and silent, the Piaggio Avanti P-180

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It moves twice as fast as the fastest Ferrari, holds more luggage than a Chevy Suburban, and carries up to seven people in whisper-quiet luxury for more than 1,700 miles. So it’s hardly surprising that the Piaggio Avanti P-180 turbo prop is becoming the private plane of choice among the “Get me there — now!” crowd.

But to look at this plane as purely functional is to miss a key point of its offer to the world. As striking as the plane appears in photographs, it’s not until you stand next to it on the runway that you appreciate its extraordinarily beautiful form. From the tip of its conical nose to the edges of its finely crafted tail fins, the P-180’s design is so sleek and striking that it couldn’t be confused with any other aircraft.

Once it starts rolling, you can hear the plane hum a comforting tune, as well. Rather than the monotonous buzz of most propeller-driven craft, the Piaggio shrieks to life with a double diva scream of a pair of highly tuned Formula One engines. Watching the P-180 slingshot down the runway, it’s immediately clear that the noise is not misleading and that the Piaggio is a serious high-performance craft.

This should come as no surprise, given the P-180’s heritage. Even though Piaggio is best known as one of the world’s largest producers of chic motor scooters, the brand’s familial link to the Fiat auto dynasty ought to get you thinking. A man born with performance in his blood runs the company: Piero Ferrari, son of Ferrari founder Enzo Ferrari.

Piero evidently shares his father’s passion for performance vehicles (the Avanti P-180 holds eight turbo prop world speed records). The run that best demonstrates the P-180’s speed is the one it did between Omaha and Chicago. The plane completed the journey in only 43 minutes and 25 seconds to record an average speed of 573 mph.

While not as initially impressive as some executive jet figures, it’s the fact that the Avanti can hit speeds like this while traveling 1,700 miles at weather-dodging altitudes that top 40,000 feet — and use a fraction of the fuel that a jet would sluice down over the same distance.

The Piaggio uses 40 percent less fuel than an equivalent sized jet, according to Avantair, the only U.S. operator of Avanti P-180s. With gas prices heading for the skies as fast as the 180, that’s a significant saving.

Inside the Avanti P-180, the unusual amount of headroom gives an immediate welcome. Instead of creeping along the central walkway bent over, you stroll to your fabulously upholstered Italian leather throne. Once seated, you can make calls, check e-mail, watch the film of your choice, or simply recline and enjoy the eerie silence.

Every Avanti P-180 has a sound-absorbing layer in the fuselage that mops up even the smallest of intrusive noises, which — combined with the rear-facing engines — make for one of the quietest flying experiences you ever will have had. Try it once and even seat 1A on a commercial airliner starts to look and feel a little less attractive.

If you think economy and private aircraft are three words you’d not expect to read in the same sentence, the P-180 is proof that you can. Without getting into too much detail, suffice to say that if you regularly travel first class with more than a couple of colleagues or friends, your accountants will soon suggest a conversation with Avantair.

A new Avanti P-180 costs the thick end of $6 million (between $4 million and $5 million gets your name on the title). If you prefer fractional ownership, Avantair (which has exclusive U.S. rights to sell fractional ownerships) will sell you as little as a 16th share in one — equal to 50 hours flying time a year — for $390,000 and $7,000 a month operating expenses.

Currently, there’s a waiting list that stretches into 2007 (Avantair has ordered 31 planes). One flight is all it takes to see why.

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