It’s easy to see why John Travolta is a star. He speaks incredibly softly, that famously gentle New Jersey lilt, and yet every word is carefully chosen to convey passion. His passion for film, his passion for Scientology, his passion for his family, and his passion for what brought him to Dubai on Monday: aviation.
For those of us who have grown up with Travolta — and with Grease turning 35 this year, that’s a lot of us — it can at first be hard to reconcile the image of summer lovin’ Danny Zuko with the man at the joystick of an A380 superjumbo, but this is no act.
A certified pilot since he was 21 and a Qantas-trained 747 captain, Travolta has turned a lifelong love of aviation into a side project that lets him travel the world. “I’m an airplane geek,” he says, beaming with pride in his captain’s uniform (four stripes on his epaulets, count ’em) at Dubai’s Jumeriah Zabeel Saray hotel on the Palm, part of a five-day trip to the UAE which is part family holiday, part Qantas promotional tour.
“I’ve been wanting to come to Dubai for at least ten years,” he says, but it took Qantas’ tie up with Dubai’s Emirates Airline in March to seal the deal. Upon hearing about the deal, “I kind of bullied my way here. Dubai has not seen me in person and I can promote that partnership.”
For this trip, Travolta was not at the controls of the Qantas-branded 707 he owns (and in which he flew Oprah Winfrey and her studio audience to Australia in 2010); instead he flew in from London on an A380, with his sister and two children, Ella, 13, and Ben, 3.
“The flight on the A380 was the culmination of what a passenger would want,” he said — and Travolta promises he’s the perfect passenger, despite logging over 300 hours as a pilot himself every year. “When I fly with Qantas, I never worry because I was trained by Qantas and the training is so amazingly extreme in the best way. I knew the pilots and I visited with them and saw them prep the flight. It’s nothing I ever have a concern about. On another airline or another corporate jet I might.”
Inflight, he says, “I had dinner, I sat up talking with my sister probably longer than I should have — but we were excited. She was the one who gave me my first airline ticket so she’s like my aviation touchstone – my flying buddy. Then I watched half a movie, and fell asleep for about two and a half hours.”
Then the pilot in him comes in. “But I felt great because the A380 has a lower pressurization, so the air is thicker — it’s like 4,000 feet [altitude] versus 8,000 feet. That’s a big difference. You will actually not be as affected.”
Travolta was, incredibly, the first non-test pilot to fly an A380 after it rolled off the production line — something most commercial airline pilots fought to do, but he had fame on his side.
“Margaret Jackson, who was Qantas CEO about six years ago, called me close to midnight, and she said, ‘would you like to be the first non-test pilot?’ I said, ‘are you kidding?’ All the airlines’ pilots wanted to be the first non-test pilots, but she said I’m going to get more press, it’s going to be better for the plane, for the airline. Suddenly I was in the cockpit!”
Of the plane itself, “it’s very pilot friendly. It’s kind of a miracle of a plane, kind of state of the art. I found there’s almost not enough to do because it does everything for you.”
So Travolta knows his stuff (he confides that the reason he was trained on the 747 was because Qantas wanted to make sure he could talk the talk and really fly a plane, especially as he was travelling the world on a 707 with their logos on it. “I passed with flying colours” he says brightly). You might think that being a family man, movie star (he’s got two films in the works), pilot and “architecture nut” as he describes himself (another reason he’s in Dubai) would talk up most of his time.
But then there’s the other bit of his life.
The one where he saves lives.
Ask Travolta about the a career tribute he received last week and the deaths this year of two men he had worked with frequently — Get Shorty writer Elmore Leonard and his fellow New Jersey actor James Gandolfini — and rather than reflect on his own life (“In 15 years it’s probably my 6th or 7th career award. So I’ve done my reflecting”), the topic almost immediately turns to Scientology.
“Elmore died at an appropriate age, but James did not,” he says. “I have a whole button on people dying too young. [Gandolfini] died of a heart attack, but the other people, like Michael Jackson, Heath Ledger, Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse... these people should not be dying. I’m an anti-drug guy, so I don’t like that drugs can take their lives away.”
“In my religion, we have a programme that works, with 78 per cent non-recidivism. Do you know what the next one is? 28 per cent. And the next? 8 per cent. And these guys are going to those kind of programmes. I’m just saying look, you don’t have to become a Scientologist, but this is a programme that really works, you have a good chance, man, of not going back on this stuff.
“I am tired of losing artists at this level. It’s at a rampant level. I only named four or five.” Another name comes to him, and he exclaims, “Tony Scott! I mean enough already.”
He credits his religion — which is controversial but has no lack of celebrity followers, from Tom Cruise to Priscilla Presley — with helping him avoid the same tragic Hollywood path.
“I remember the ’70s and ’80s was filled with people wanting me to party at that level. I just didn’t. And couldn’t. I was a lucky one in that way but also it was Scientology that helped me not do that. I was already figured out as to possible reasons I would have even gone to something like that.”
If he’s forthright with me about Scientology, then he’s no less forceful with his celebrity friends. “Some people, famous people that I know, they have serious problems but they don’t believe it. I said to one very famous person recently, ‘by Christmas we can have this all wrapped up’. He said ‘oh no, I have deep-seated issue that it took me a lifetime to get to’. But I know with my own eyes, the worst cases I saw, three months, they are already on their way. It can save a life. I’ve personally saved several lives, watched it with my own eyes.”
Quickfire with John Travolta
Your eyes lit up when I mentioned Grease. It’s something you’re still fond of?
Grease is an inexplainable phenomenon. If I told you – and this is a fact – that every year, 20,000 people show up to the Hollywood Bowl, and pay a low of $27 and a high of $75 dollars to see a movie that’s 35 years old, to sing with it, you name me the movie – Star Wars? No. The Godfather? No. Wizard of Oz? No. Even the Academy had a screening recently, they charged $6 for a non-sing-along and 100,000 people showed up. What is that? [asks the room]? That’s a miracle!
It’s probably thanks, in part at least, to your amazing dance moves. Do you still dance?
“I danced with Olivia Newton John, we did a Christmas album last year, I danced with my daughter for Old Dogs, I danced in Hairspray. Those are professional. Personally, I dance with my kids, I dance with my wife. I don’t watch TV talent shows, but I did watch Kirstie [Alley, on Dancing With The Stars], because she is my friend and I was proud of her and that was her solution to losing weight. I was like whatever it takes, do it.
Tell us about the films you’ve got coming up.
Gotti is based on the true life of Jjohn Gotti Sr. It’s a real modern last godfather. The Godfather was a created character, and this is the real deal. The Forger is a grandfather, father, son sotry. I play Christopher Plummer’s son, and Tye Sheridan, who just got an award in Venice, plays my son. I’m a savant painter that uses his skills in criminal ways to sell paintings, and forge passports. Then I get stuck in prison, and my son gets ill and I have to get out of prison to deal with that.
Flight path: How John Travolta got his wings
John Travolta first became interested in flying while growing up in New Jersey, watching the skies. He started taking lessons aged 15, flew solo at 19, gained his pilot’s licence aged 21 and a jet licence at 23.
The biggest plane he’s certified to fly is the Boeing 747 jumbo jet. He got his wings by training at Qantas’ facility in Sydney and with Boeing in Seattle.
He holds 11 jet licences: 747, 707, Gulfstream II, Lear 24, Hawker 1251A, Eclipse Jet, Vampire Jet, Canadair CL-141 Jet, Soko Jet, Citation ISP and Challenger.
He owns five aircraft, including his famous Boeing 707, named Jett Clipper Ella, after his late son Jett and 13-year-old daughter Ella (he also has a son, Benjamin, born in 2010). ‘Clipper’ is a tribute to the now-defunct Pan American Airlines, which always used the title in the names of their planes. The aircraft is painted in Qantas’ 1960s V-Jet livery.
Travolta’s Boeing 707, built in 1964, is registered as N707JT. Its first owner was Qantas, who used it for flights to Asia and South America, before selling it in 1968. It went through a number of owners — including Frank Sinatra from 1972-75 — before Travolta bought it in 1998.
Travolta is also a brand ambassador for Bombardier’s Learjet and Challenger business aircraft, and with luxury aviation watchmaker Breitling.
He flies over 300 hours a year. “I fly almost everyday. I fly from a low of three times a week to a high of five times a week. I am really flying quite a bit. I have three different planes I jockey back and forth with. The 707 is usually about 100 hours, the Challenger about 150 and then maybe 100 in the Eclipse jet. It’s probably 600 if you consider all the flying I do, when I have to be a passenger.”