When it comes to status symbols, it is difficult to top the first VIP version of the world's biggest airliner. And when your extended family is sitting on top of the world's largest reserves of oil, you are probably one of a handful of people who can afford one. So it came as little surprise that the launch customer for the aptly named Airbus A380 Flying Palace was named at the Dubai air show as a Saudi royal, Prince Alwaleed - already the owner of a Boeing 747-400 private jet.

The soaring oil price has seen the Middle East, together with Asia, emerge as the main markets for VIP versions of airliners larger than the A320-based Airbus Corporate Jet and 737-based Boeing Business Jet, so much so that both airframers have extended their ACJ and BBJ brands to encompass their entire airliner ranges.

While Boeing has sold around 25 versions of the 747 to governments and private individuals, some of these are showing their age and Airbus believes there is a market for around 15 A380s, mostly from existing 747 operators. Dubai also saw Airbus seal its first order for a corporate version of its A350 XWB with CJet of Hong Kong, and collect a "letter of interest" for two A380s from UAE conglomerate Al Jaber Group, which also ordered two A318 Elites at the show.

Not to be outdone, Boeing is confident of finding buyers for corporate versions of its 747-8, with Lufthansa Technik signing a contract earlier this month for the completion of the first reborn Jumbo Jet for an unnamed VIP customer. The German maintenance, repair and overhaul giant - which announced at September's National Business Aviation Association convention that its Hamburg completion centre was ready to handle the 747-8 - will take a maximum of 18 months to install the luxury interior. Chief executive August Henningsen said at Dubai that LHT has handled 15 747 completions and major modifications - "no other provider in the world even comes close to that figure" - and the extra 50m2 (5,380ft2) of floorspace on the -8 compared with the -400 "opens new possibilities for us".

Completing the A380 will be a tougher challenge. Ironically, while transforming the world's first double-deck airliner into an airborne palace would be a hugely prestigious project for the two or three specialists in the world equipped to handle it, the resources and time such a project would suck up in a completions sector desperate for capacity and short of skilled technicians may prove a deterrent.

It is believed that no completion centre has yet been chosen for the launch VIP A380. Switzerland's Jet Aviation - which announced at Dubai that it had signed in the previous six months completion contracts and letters of intent for two A340s, four BBJs and three 787s to be completed through 2014 - has begun construction of a 9,600m2 widebody hangar at its Basle base. The facility is due to open during the first half of next year, and is big enough to handle an A380 and 747 at the same time.

The fact that it has a long relationship with the Saudi royal family - completing several 747-400s - makes it a favourite, but by no means a certainty for Prince Alwaleed's Flying Palace. Like its rivals, it is finding it hard to recruit the necessary skilled staff and taking on the A380 may mean diverting resources from smaller and less-complicated, but more pressing contracts.

LHT says its is committed to outfitting the first A380, but that it may not have the capacity at Hamburg when the green aircraft comes off the Toulouse production line around late 2010. Walter Heerdt, LHT's senior vice-president for sales and marketing, says that depending on the interior specification, time and labour involved in outfitting an A380 could be equivalent to completing two 747s or A340s.

LHT is already creating a third widebody completion line to cater for the soaring demand and says it is selling slots for 2012 and beyond. "The widebody line should be open in 2010 to coincide with the delivery of the first 747-8 and an A330," Heerdt says. LHT is also in negotiation with another widebody owner to start interior work the same year. "We are not slamming the door on the A380. We are not just prepared to overcommit," Heerdt says.

Gore Design of the USA, which is completing its fifth Boeing 767, has expressed a "serious interest" in adding the A380 to its completions portfolio, although it says its would need to invest heavily in new facilities and skilled labour at its San Antonio, Texas base.

Meanwhile, a survey released at Dubai by Abu Dhabi's Royal Jet, the world's biggest operator of BBJs, with a fleet of five, claims growth in the Middle East business aviation sector shows no signs of slowing. The charter market has grown by 23% a year over two years and the business aviation sector as a whole has been enjoying compound annual growth of 40% in terms of aircraft movements and fleet size.

With 27% of the region's fleet made up of VIP airliners and a further 4% by ultra-long-range business jets, pressure on completion centres is unlikely to let up for some time.

Source: Flight International