While not all of that will be in upgrading the cabins of B&GA aircraft, it does indicate that business is getting better.
“It seems like there is a marked increase now compared to the last 18-months or so,” stated Gordon Ross, director of Interior Services, Pentastar Aviation. “A lot of people are getting into ownership through the purchase of pre-owned aircraft and want to personalize the aircraft to meet their specific taste and needs.”
Of course, the opposite reaction to the increasing business opportunities is the apparently decreasing profit margins.
“There is a lot of capacity in this industry so there is a lot of pricing pressure; some customers are purely focused on the lowest price now,” Don Milum, Director of Technical Sales, StandardAero said. “To keep prices low, many customers are focusing on what they consider the problem areas that they want improved.”
“Where we used to see customers saying, ‘Just pull it all out and redo the whole thing,’ today we are getting asked to quote just specific items or upgrades,” he said. “Of course, that changes a bit when the aircraft is a new acquisition.”
Yes, it seems that gone are the days of, “If you have to ask how much, you can’t afford it.” In today’s cabin refurbishment market it’s more like, “Just because I can afford it, don’t for a minute think I’m going to pay it.”
Tim Briscoe, interiors manager for Stevens Aviation shared a recent cabin refurbish project on a customer’s Bombardier Learjet 60.
“It’s operated by a transport business in New York and the woman who owns the company was shopping around for the lowest price she could find,” he said. “She wanted a good deal and she sure got one. The best part is when she saw it, she was ecstatic about the way the finished cabin turned out.”
What’s hot in cabin upgrades?
Messrs Briscoe, Milum and Ross all said that the types of projects they are seeing in their respective shops runs the gamut from simple carpet replacements to full-on upgrades of all the hard- and soft- goods in the cabin.
“In addition, we’re seeing a lot of activity in adding cabin WiFi connectivity and the new air-to-ground communications systems from Gogo Business and SmartSky,” explained Milum. “We also have the emerging Ka-band technologies which are getting a lot of interest.”
“We are at the tip of the spear with regards to certification of that equipment right now,” he added. “Cabin connectivity is extremely desirable today. In many cases, it’s soaking up the budget that would have gone into more traditional cabin upgrades in the past.”
Another aspect of a good number of these connectivity type upgrades is the need to replace the aircraft’s antennas with new technology units. According to Ross, that’s not as easy as it may seem.
“The antennas today are transferring different types of data than the legacy models and the cables have to be able to efficiently transfer that data at high speeds,” he said. “When we upgrade these components today, there is a significant amount of new wiring requiring expanded interior access, which takes time. Sometimes changing out an antenna means we have to literally gut the entire inside of the aircraft to gain access. These ‘simple’ tasks can rack-up a lot of man hours.”
Of course, while WiFi is currently absorbing the majority of refurb budgets, traditional projects such as upgrading video monitors and cabin management systems (CMS) are not far behind on the ‘most wanted’ list. While those used to be pretty simple upgrades, changes in hardware and technology have contributed to making these projects a bit more challenging for installers.
“The biggest challenge with upgrading CMS today is the fact that a lot of these older systems are no longer supported by their manufacturers,” explained Lauren Fillmore, design engineer, Structures for Pentastar Aviation. “These systems are basically obsolete. They can’t be upgraded to accept the new software, so they must be replaced with new technology.”
“It also means you may have to make more changes than the customer originally anticipated or wanted,” he said. “It’s a challenging conversation to have with the owner when you are talking about the costs to purchase and install. Not to mention the additional downtime for the aircraft.”
Ross explained that much of the additional time it takes to install a new CMS comes from the simple fact that in most cases you are replacing the old, large format push-button controllers with smaller touchscreen units.
“Suddenly you have this large cutout in the drink rail that you need to make much smaller,” he said. “So now you’re not just looking at replacing the electronics, you are looking at repairing or replacing side rail material and woodwork as well. That can be very labor intensive (expensive).”
Modernizing your father’s Oldsmobile…
Another wild card in the cabin upgrade business is the changing demographics of the people using the aircraft.
“The person who may have outfitted the cabin 10- or so years ago is often retired and it is their children who are now running the company and using the airplane,” Milum said. “Obviously, they have much different needs and desires for the aircraft.” “Even if your modifications people have been working with the same people in the owner’s company for 30-years, you can’t assume that everything is static and you’re doing the same type of project again today,” he said. “That’s a black hole you can easily step in. Now, younger owners absolutely want the latest in WiFi, streaming content and connectivity in the cabin.”
“Just because the predecessor wanted the absolute best quality and materials regardless of the cost in the past, we can’t assume that’s still the case today,” said Milum. “We have to be very careful that we don’t assume that today’s customer wants the same thing. We can easily price ourselves right out of the project if we don’t have a clear understanding of the overall goal and budget.”
He also said that getting an accurate understanding of the expectations and aspirations for the finished cabin is one of the most important and demanding parts of any project.
“It can be challenging to get to talk directly to the people who will actually use that aircraft on a daily basis,” he said. “We do get to them eventually, but all too often by then the budget and schedule are already set and it can be too late to make any significant changes.”
Modification shops also need to know early on whether or
not the new owner/operator has any aspirations of offering their aircraft on Part 135 charter certificate. Why? Well, among other things the levels of flammability testing required for materials used on ‘for hire’ aircraft are much higher than those pertaining to Part 91 operated aircraft.
Build it and they will come – maybe
Even when the customer’s requirements are known, there’s still the chance that some technological and intellectual obstacles may be encountered along the way.
“NetJets has turned out a number of older Gulfstream G200s into the pre-owned market and we’ve been sending out a number of quotes to modify these aircraft,” Briscoe said. “Along with refurbishing the interiors, a number of our quotes include the installation of a new forward door, a galley sink and a forward jump seat for the flight attendant.”
“Unfortunately, Gulfstream owns all the drawings and rights for these upgrades. As you can imagine, it’s a big problem for shops like ours,” he said. “The OEMs want to keep all that nice refurbishing work for themselves and they make it very difficult to get the engineering data. If we want to do any major modifications we have to work with a designated engineering representative (DER) and get a field approval.”
Gulfstream is not alone. Briscoe stated that all the aircraft OEMs are pretty stingy when it comes to sharing their intellectual property. But, that doesn’t mean independent MRO/completion shops are dead in the water.
“We did an add-on galley annex for a Embraer Phenom 300. The owner wanted the flexibility to take a seat out and roll the galley in there when he needed it for a trip,” Briscoe said. “It was a really successful project which we did with a DER and a field approval. Unfortunately, Embraer now offers that same type solution as a modification on the 300.”
Another area of caution is whether or not the equipment your customer wants to use is actually approved for that aircraft type.
Fillmore shared a story of a customer who, prior to the installation, went out and pre-purchased a piece of equipment in an attempt to save money. Or not as the case turned out.
“The challenge with pre-purchasing equipment is that the component is not always approved for installation on the aircraft, causing installation delays and additional costs, as it has to be run through engineering, DER and certification,” Fillmore explained.
“By the time we got done running it all through everyone, it literally tripled the cost of the project,” he said. “Had they [the customer] just come to us to begin with, we would have been able to give them a comparable or superior installation for less than they paid for the original hardware.”
Don’t rush into a refurb
Ross said that one of the biggest mistakes he routinely sees people who are new to aircraft ownership make is jumping in to a refurb project without really knowing what they want.
“If I can give an owner of any new aircraft one piece of advice it would be to go use the airplane for a few months before making any decisions about modifications,” he said. “We have had experience with customers who have rushed in and completed extensive interior work only to come back six months later to have things modified.”
But, like most individuals, when they compete an action like buying a new airplane, their first reaction is to want to have it redone in their personal style. Which leads us to a good concluding law: Don’t equate wealth to having common sense.