Pimp Your Plane

Oct. 15, 2018
As owners scramble to meet the looming ADS-B mandate, many are seizing the opportunity to deck out their planes with discretionary upgrades

On the date this article was written, there were 470 days to Jan. 1, 2020. This is significant because the clock is counting down on the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA’s) ADS-B mandate, which requires aircraft to be equipped with ADS-B to fly into most controlled airspace by that date.

In addition, any airspace that requires the use of a transponder today will also require aircraft to be equipped with Version 2 of the ADS-B Out system by Jan. 1, 2020, reports the FAA.

ADS-B’s looming deadline is the impetuous behind many of today’s aircraft upgrades, reports Andrew Evans, director of marketing for Elliott Aviation, an authorized Embraer Phenom 100/300, Beechjet/Hawker 400XP, and King Air service center.

He notes, “Customers are dealing with the potential of either upgrading their aircraft, or depending on the value of the aircraft, scrapping their airplane and getting something else.”

There are a variety of retrofit programs available for owners to consider. Randy Deal, director of MRO sales for Signature TECHNICair, reports some aircraft have just “one or two logical solutions, while others have a variety of options, including up to a complete flight deck replacement.” Selecting which option is best requires directors of maintenance to work with MROs to consider desired functionality, price point, and the pros and cons of each available option.

Moving forward, Evans predicts full cockpit retrofits will be very attractive to many aircraft owners. This retrofit will take approximately four to six weeks to complete and is something that MROs are currently pre-booking.

Full cockpit retrofits are increasing in popularity, agrees Kerry Heiss, director of MRO sales and marketing for Western Aircraft, a Greenwich AeroGroup company that offers aircraft services and management. He notes Western Aircraft performed several full-cockpit retrofits this summer, has one coming up in two weeks, and has another booked for January.

“Folks who might not have otherwise prioritized cockpit system upgrades are now doing them in conjunction with ADS-B. It’s more cost effective to go ahead and spend more money to upgrade the entire cockpit and get the ADS-B issue taken care of at the same time,” Heiss says.

However, though the deadline creeps steadily closer, Signature TECHNICair reports on its website that “operators are procrastinating the FAA mandate.” The site further warns, “The limited capacity of equipment manufacturers and installation centers to complete the necessary upgrade could leave aircraft grounded.”

The time is now to consider this important upgrade, Deal stresses. “Flight deck enhancements to comply with the ADS-B Out mandate are the most common upgrade,” he says. “Some are scheduled well into Q2 2019. It is difficult to fit anyone into our schedule for avionics work inside four to six weeks out.”

Heiss warns: “Schedule this work right away. A lot of spots are already gone. The longer you wait, the harder it’s going to be to get in.”

As aircraft come in for this mandated work, there has been a resurgence of aircraft owners asking for discretionary upgrades, such as cabin management systems (CMS), in-flight connectivity, FANS CPDLC work, and interior and exterior revamps.

Aircraft can be out of commission for approximately four to six weeks for ADS-B upgrades and maintenance inspections, making it an excellent time for other upgrades. Evans states, “If you’re coming in to get your avionics worked on or a large maintenance inspection, you can save time and money by doing paint and interior work at the same time, rather than continually coming back to piecemeal everything.”

In this article, Aircraft Maintenance Technology considers common upgrades that might fit into an aircraft’s scheduled downtime.

First Things First

Before any work can be scheduled, most MROs spend time pinpointing exactly what customers need. This assessment includes understanding the aircraft customers have, the maintenance needs of this aircraft, and then learning more about their discretionary needs and desires.

“The basic starting point is finding out how they are using the airplane,” Heiss says. “Is it being used for charter? Is it strictly being used as a Part 91 aircraft? Where is it flying? How long is the typical mission? Someone with a mission that is less than an hour will have very different needs than someone who is making international trips and in the airplane for up to 10 hours at a time.”

According to Heiss, knowing the answers to these questions can help determine what clients need regarding in-flight connectivity and CMS, as well as the budget for upgrades.

He explains, “Someone who is using an aircraft infrequently may not need as much. The charter piece also makes a difference. We’ve found charter operators really value in-flight connectivity because it’s something their customers look for. However, a charter may not need the interior to be as high end as a privately owned jet. It just needs to be functional.”

Education is a very important part of an MRO’s consultative upgrade process. “We need to educate customers on the latest trends and styles available from manufacturers, then guide them into those that meet their specific needs,” states Meghan Welch, director of paint and interior sales for Elliott Aviation.

She adds, while flight missions help determine overall needs, the types of passengers also impact upgrades. Families with children have very different needs than corporate executives, and those needs factor into everything from color selection to interior layouts to furniture choices and exterior paint jobs.

MROs also look for the optimal timeframe for an aircraft to be down. If a customer is bringing in an aircraft for an inspection, and has three weeks downtime, Weiss explains, “They are not looking for additional downtime.” Thus, the MRO must look at what upgrades can be performed during that timeframe, and plan accordingly.

Investigate Internet Options

Pentastar Aviation is an aviation services company based in Michigan, that operates an MRO. Its 80 employees work two shifts and handle both the service needs of managed clients and those that come in for repair work. The company tracks scheduled maintenance via a software-based planning tool, and when an aircraft is due for maintenance, it helps its clients schedule interior and exterior upgrades at the same time. “People like to do their upgrades when the aircraft is down for an extended period of time,” explains Doug Levangie, Pentastar’s vice president of maintenance.

Though Pentastar is seeing plenty of requests for ADS-B upgrades as the mandate approaches, Levangie states upgrading internet and phone capabilities is coming in as a close second.

“Aircraft owners don’t necessarily care about ADS-B, though maintenance managers do. But they do care about phone system and internet upgrades,” he says.

Aircraft owners are increasingly bringing in their own tablets, smartphones, and computers to use inflight, and it is changing connectivity needs.

“We are seeing a lot of USB installs to make sure they can plug in their devices,” says Elliott's Welch. “We’ve also done a lot with speaker systems, so they can play Bluetooth music in their cabins. They also watch movies on their devices in flight.”

Though today’s connectivity options are straightforward, with most owners settling on the same product or product family for internet browsing, Deal reports “educating customers on the typical user experience and the associated plans for data and voice can break the mold of what they initially thought they wanted.”

Most companies take a consultative approach to internet upgrades and installs, sources report. But Heiss notes how much consultation is needed can vary. He explains, “Some customers know exactly what they want. But in a lot of cases, they know they want inflight connectivity, but they don’t understand their options. We walk them through the different options and help them determine the best fit.”

In the end it’s all about speed, adds Levangie. He says the systems are ever-evolving and speed increases all the time. If they travel internationally, owners may need to go to a KA- or KU-band installation to get the speeds they desire.

“The key is to marry the right option for their employee profile to the right service plan, because it can get very expensive otherwise,” Levangie adds.

He says the MRO must peel back the layers to get at the heart of what the customer needs by asking a few key questions:

• What do you plan on doing on the internet?

• How often do you want to do it?

• Do you want to stream video or just use the internet to check email and things like that?

• How many streams? In other words, will one person be streaming video or all passengers at the same time?

“Once we have the answers, we don’t just say, ‘Here, we recommend this.’ We go through each option and list their advantages and drawbacks. We also go through service plans, so that when they get their $30,000 bill, they understand why it’s the amount that it is.”

CMS Considerations

“There are many flavors of customers,” states Deal.

This statement becomes abundantly clear as MROs design cabin management systems (CMS). Business aircraft passengers not only want to watch video on high-definition (HD) flat-screen monitors, they also want to use an array of personal electronic devices to connect to the internet and to control functions within the cabin.

“With some older aircraft, switch panels are no longer supported so we have to come up with options that give customers an operational cabin and entertainment system that allows them to control the lights and everything else in the back from their devices,” states Levangie.

And, he explains most older aircraft do not support HD systems. An upgrade to HD requires the MRO to run the HD cables, routers, and upgrade equipment, including thermometers, within the aircraft. “We can do everything from changing out the switch panels to a full retrofit of their cabin management system, replacing it with something like Rockwell Collins’ Venue or Honeywell Ovation or the new Innov8 system,” says Levangie.

CMS upgrades also include lighting to improve the ambience of the entire cabin. The most typical change is to move from fluorescent bulbs to LED lighting, which can offer a variety of light temperatures from warm to cool.

“LED lighting is a big draw, for both the interior and the exterior,” reports Weiss. “It’s much better lighting. It offers less draw on your electrical system and it's more maintenance friendly because you’re not replacing bulbs as frequently. When it comes to landing lights, it can make a pretty dramatic difference in that it allows you to see much farther down the runway at night.”

Elliott has developed Prizm lighting, which is RGB lighting. This new lighting system will debut in late 2018 and will be available to end-users as well as 145 repair stations. “It allows us to create some ambience in flight,” says Welch. “You can customize these lights via an app and change your upwash or downwash lighting. There is cup holder lighting, toe kick lighting, and floor lighting. Lighting colors can be changed to create a relaxing feel or a feeling of energy.”

SmartView shades, from Elliott, are controlled by the CMS. These electronic window shades allow users to electronically control the amount of light entering the cabin, while their opacity helps match the shades to an aircraft’s interior colors.

Changes in how customers use technology has also impacted furniture upgrades. Traditionally, passengers watched movies on a full, cab-mounted screen. Now they bring up movies on their personal electronics. “We’ve got arms that mount to the side rails, where they can simultaneously charge their iPad and position it exactly where they want it,” states Weiss. “It’s all hands-free so they can do other things while watching a movie.”

Interior Installations

“When it comes to interior decisions, most directors of maintenance are going to make sure they involve the principal to get a really good idea of what they want,” Weiss says. “They’re going to show renderings, talk about colors, look at samples and swatches, to get something that is very customized.”

The trends when it comes to the interior are “less is more,” states Welch, who explains there is not a lot of pattern on the sidewalls anymore. “You have a nice seat leather color, a bit of pattern or detail on the carpet, but the side wall is very clean looking without a lot of pattern,” she says. “Contrast comes in if you have a gray seat and a darker carpet and veneer.”

Cooler tones are becoming popular. “There are more grays, blacks, or charcoal tones than before,” she says. “There might be a pop of color with pillows, blankets, or color stitching, but otherwise it’s pretty neutral.”

Cabinetry is often customized to the end user. “Every aircraft user is truly unique in how they want their galleys to look,” Welch adds. “They want their galley to be a showpiece. They want doors and drawers where you can see their nice stemware and dishes, and they want it to be a focal point in the cabin.”

Complete interiors are also popular with some owners opting to completely re-rag, reports Levangie. It takes approximately eight months to completely revamp an interior in this way.

With upholstery, Welch reports they are seeing requests for ink- and stain-resistant ultra-leather on the window panels and headliner. Elliott Aviation even has a customer putting this material on their seats. “Typically, you put leather, not ultra-leather, on seats,” she says. “But this customer has ultra-leather on the seats of his Tesla and he wants the same in his airplane. Not only that, but they are white. This is going to be a really cool transformation because it’s an all-white and black interior and it came in all tan.”

For cabinetry and upholstery, Welch states they gear their choices toward what their end missions are. Families will likely want durable materials that last and are stain resistant, while executives might need higher-end furnishings with cabinetry options that allow for drink and catering service.

Put on the Paint

“Paint is a good way to prevent corrosion, so it’s important to keep your paint fresh and well maintained,” says Weiss.

But, paint, adds Welch, is also a path toward self-expression.

“A lot of customers are really focused on cool and unique paint schemes,” states Welch. “We are seeing a lot of two-toned paint schemes and pearl paint. It’s not just your standard metallic and nonmetallic paint anymore. There’s also diamond coating finishes. We are seeing a lot of those.”

She shares that one customer brought their King Air 90 to match its paint and interior to his favorite Aston Martin. Another had his Falcon 900 EX painted a very specific red color and automotive paint was used. Recently, a customer’s Lear 75 was painted bright silver pearl, and boat paint was used.

While paint is evolving into some very cool design options, Welch offers a word of caution. “You have to be very careful what paints you use on the radome,” she says. “You have to make sure the paint shops you work with are very knowledgeable about paints, the applications, and what can be used where.”

BIO: Ronnie Wendt is a freelance writer based in Waukesha, WI. She has been writing about aviation-related topics for a decade.

About the Author

Ronnie Wendt

Ronnie Wendt is a freelance writer based in Waukesha, Wisconsin. She has written about aviation-related topics for over a decade.