For aircraft technicians and engineers, airplanes are finely crafted machines. But to passengers, airplanes are interior spaces; long tubes lined with composites, fabrics, and plastics that whisk them from one destination to another.
It is a rule of thumb that the better-appointed the ‘airframe interior’ — for that is what the tube actually is — the more enjoyable the flight experience for passengers. Outfit the cabin with quality leathers, wood veneers, and other materials that passengers associate with luxurious surroundings, and the airframe interior becomes something special. Add flat panel HDTVs, Internet connectivity, and a host of other cutting-edge tech features, and the airframe interior becomes a centerpiece that reflects well on the aircraft’s owner/operator. Whether this respect is for respect’s sake alone or to favorably influence potential customers that the owner/operator has sent aloft doesn’t matter. What counts is that the airframe interior impresses all who travel in it.
Making this happen is the task of companies such as, Duncan Aviation in Lincoln, NB; Elliott Aviation in Moline, IL; Midcoast Aviation in St. Louis; and Savannah Air Center in Savannah, GA. All four firms specialize in the design and outfitting of business airframe interiors, either by renovating existing fittings or replacing them outright in line with customized cabin plans.
“The airframe interior design and decoration process begins when people contact us through our website or give us a call,” says Meghan Welch, Elliott Aviation’s interior designer. “We then sit down with them on a conference call and find out what they want to do inside their aircraft. We discuss their budget, because an airframe interior redo can cost anywhere from $100,000 to $1 million depending on the complexity and materials used. We then work out a schedule and start drawing up plans based on their input.”
“During this initial stage, the design team starts compiling paint and material suggestions for the project,” says Suzanne Hawes, Duncan Aviation’s completion sales representative for Citation and Hawker airframes. “We work with natural materials such as wood and wool, because these materials tend to be more fire-retardant. We also like to use leather for the seating, and ultra-leather for the headers and window treatments.”
At the same time, the design team selects proposed electronics to meet the customer’s stated desires; items such as flat panel HDTVs, DVD players, satellite TV, audio systems, speakers, and LED lighting. Computer and telecommunications upgrades are mapped out at this point as well.
“We’ve noticed that clients are seeking a working office environment in their aircraft cabins,” says Rodger Renaud, senior vice president green completions for Midcoast. “They want high-speed data, BlackBerry connectivity, and phone systems that allow their flight time to be productive time.”
Once the entire concept has been drawn up, it is time to take it to the customer for their approval. This can happen in person or over the phone. In addition, Elliott Aviation uses a program called EnVision (samples of which can be seen on its website) to illustrate how the changes will look inside the airframe interior from a variety of perspectives.
The Midcoast and Savannah Air Center design teams travel the world to meet with customers and review the aircraft specification in detail. Fabric boards, 3-D renderings of the interior and exterior, and detailed drawings are discussed with the customer. “It is critical to get all approvals as quickly as possible to maintain the aircraft’s delivery schedules,” says Renaud. “The earlier we get approvals, the earlier we can start engineering and manufacturing. Cabinetry fabrication, for example, often begins before the aircraft even arrives at our facilities.”
“After all of the specifications have been approved by the client, it is time to do the actual work,” says Hawes. “The aircraft is brought into the shop; often not just for interior work, but also a new paint job, avionics upgrade, and engine maintenance. After all, doing all these things at once reduces aircraft downtime, which is in the customer’s best interest.”
In all cases, trained airframe interior technicians start by stripping the interior of the airframe down to bare metal. They remove the seats, cabinetry, headers, and anything else that might be in place.
What happens to these components depends on the client’s plans and budget. In some instances, the existing fittings may simply be recovered and resurfaced, then placed back in their original locations. In other instances, they may be disposed of in favor of entirely new and more expensive fittings. This is why traditional cabinetmakers are prized by airframe interior decorators; both for their skills at creating new furniture pieces and re-veneering existing cabinetry.
This isn’t all: “About 40 percent of all airframe interior jobs see some form of new construction inside,” says George Bajo, Duncan Aviation’s completion sales representative for Gulfstream and Challenger aircraft. “It can be something small like a simple cabinet, or large like a brand new galley. That’s the beauty of an empty airframe interior: You can reconfigure the space to create whatever feel the customer is looking for.” Rewiring is also done at this stage, both for power and data transfer inside the aircraft.
Once any required construction is completed, the reinstallation begins. In goes the refinished and/or replaced headers, the 100 percent wool carpets, and the leather chairs. Flat panel TVs are plugged in, along with the rest of the entertainment/communications system. Final components are added to the galley and lavatories; final finishing is done to the cabinetry and other expensive fittings. Overall, this process can take anywhere from eight to 12 weeks; more if the customer decides to change things once it is underway.
Anyone who has flown in a custom-appointed airframe interior knows how spectacular the experience can be. If commercial airliners are ‘air buses’, then custom-appointed business jets are the limousines of the sky. The difference between the two experiences is just that great.
This said, finished airframe interiors can vary widely from each other as well. Although the norm is a mix of expensive wood veneers, subdued fabrics, and deep leather chairs that alternatively support you and swallow you up, there are exceptions that stand out from the crowd. For instance, “One client we had owns a 1950s-vintage Grumman Gulfstream G1 twin turboprop,” says Matt Richardson, Duncan Aviation’s completion sales representative for Falcon and Learjet airframes. “They redid the interior in a retro ‘50s style, with lots of purples, greens, and other colors that accurately reflected the G1’s heritage.
It was different, but quite stunning!”
“We notice the cultural influence of our clients on their aircraft interiors,” says Midcoast’s Renaud. “Our European customers choose materials that tend to be more vivid. A recent European client selected a bright blue leather for their seats. The finished product looked great.”
One thing is certain: Airframe interiors will continue to be the blank canvases upon which imaginative clients paint their visions of what luxurious air travel should be. From an aviation business standpoint, this is the beauty of airframe interior design and decoration: Virtually anything is possible when the client is willing to spend $1 million or more to make it happen!