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Aft Cabin design

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Aircraft spaces personalized with crew input benefit owners with comfy traveling and higher resale value.


Designers and techs at Western Aircraft work closely together to deliver a new interior for customers.
By Shannon Forrest
President, Turbine Mentor ATP/CFII. Challenger 604/605,
Gulfstream IV, MU2B

Private aviation is attractive because of its “newness factor.” At least, that’s what the psychologists tell us. Something new triggers strong emotions. Newness is associated with comfort, and that sense of comfort is one reason private air travel is preferable to the airline experience.

Corporate aircraft always seem to look new, or at least newer than their airline counterparts, and that should be the intent if the goal is passenger comfort.

An impeccable maintenance record is meaningless if a passenger can’t get past the psychological effects of a worn out, unkempt, or disheveled-looking interior.

How an aircraft looks inside can affect a passenger’s attitude toward the flight. There’s a whole segment of the population that speciously believes any plane smaller than the Hindenburg is inherently unsafe.

Pilots have heard it all before, for example: “Wow, this airplane is small.” Or, in the case of a turboprop, “I didn’t know I’d be flying on a propeller plane.” The executive-level interior of a brand-new King Air 350ER from Beechcraft (Textron) is visually indistinguishable from that of a jet of similar size.

It not only looks great, but it’s also one of the most easily reconfigurable interiors on the market. The “antiprop” or “little plane” mentality starts to fade when one is ensconced in a comfortable leather seat and connected to the Wi-Fi. New things just make people feel better.

Western Aircraft serves Citation, Dassault, Embraer, Gulfstream, Hawker, Kodiak, Pilatus, Piper, and King Air series aircraft.

Newness factor

One way of maintaining the newness factor is to buy aircraft right off the assembly line. Those who do – whether a private individual or corporation – tend to be of the “budget is not a factor” mindset.

Much like building a brand-new house, there’s a sense of control and personal touch when selecting a paint scheme and interior from scratch. Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) devote entire departments to cabin design, and, if it’s technically feasible, anything goes.

Flight departments or private individuals with a budget that precludes the purchase of a new aircraft every couple of years can achieve a sense of newness by retrofitting or updating the interior of a pre-owned. Choosing where to have aftermarket work completed is an important decision.

Facilities tend to fall into 2 categories – dedicated maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) service providers, and businesses that offer other aviation services, including interior design.

Maintenance, repair, and overhaul

Stevens Aerospace and West Star Aviation are representative of the MRO segment, and both are Piaggio authorized service centers. Retrofitting an interior simultaneously with heavy maintenance or avionics upgrades can minimize downtime and save money in the long run, particularly with a specialized aircraft like the Piaggio P180.

The other segment includes companies like Clay Lacy Aviation, which touts itself as a provider of overall business aviation services, including management, charter, and FBO. Owners under management often have provisions to utilize other managed aircraft, or at least the ability to charter a similar platform while their aircraft is down for improvements.

Often, well-established relationships or brand loyalties help an owner finalize where to have interior work done.

Clay Lacy can provide charter service while a client’s bizjet is in the shop for a new interior. Pictured is a Dassault Falcon 900C interior done at Clay Lacy Aviation.

The design department

Once an owner decides where to have interior work performed, the next step is to determine the scope and nature of the project. This is where having a design team is invaluable, as the process itself can be overwhelming.

To say that the job of a designer is to turn a mental concept into reality is a disservice – there’s more to it than that. Personalities found among aircraft owners run the gamut from celebrities to high-net-worth individuals and corporations.
Designers are part psychologists and part realists. They must deliver a product that makes the client happy, and do so within an established budget and timeframe.

Despite a sense of control, owners often miss little details that could be important when it comes to “wear and tear” and resale value. Identifying what clients don’t want is as important as knowing what they do want.

Tonya Wood, Interiors Manager at Western Aircraft in Boise ID, says that how an aircraft is used is an important consideration when selecting materials and configurations for an interior.

An aircraft used for charter generally will see more traffic, consequently wearing out faster than those aircraft used strictly for Part 91 operations. Given a choice between opulent and durable, the more resilient furnishing (carpet, for instance) might be a better choice if the aircraft sees a rapid turnover of passengers.

A Challenger 300 interior completed by Elliott Aviation shows the clean and modern design look being requested by owners.

Flightcrew input

Owners might not consider the importance of flightcrews in interior design decisions, but that could be a mistake. Wood points out that pilots and flight attendants can be a valuable source of information regarding ergonomics and efficiency.

For example, a client considering a redesign of the galley might only be interested in aesthetics. But the proposed retrofit could impede the flight attendant’s progress and make it difficult to prepare meals and give a high level of service.

The only way to know is to ask. Will the design be elegant as well as functional? Pilots with significant time in type know how difficult (or easy) it is to get baggage loaded aboard their aircraft.

Having to tell an owner that his golf clubs won’t fit because his new cabin renovation dramatically altered the layout probably won’t go over well, so it’s worth getting pilot input for significant changes.

Budget and design priorities: seats, carpets, and cabinetry

To get a sense of what an interior designer could do, Professional Pilot gave Tonya Wood a challenge: to come up with a plan to update the interior of a hypothetical aircraft.

Rather than completely fabricating the scenario, the editorial staff looked for a jet aircraft currently on the market, with an interior that could best be described as dated and unappealing. The result was a 1982 Dassault Falcon 50, most of the interior of which was 17 years old.

The 9-passenger executive interior consisted of chairs upholstered in light brown stressed buckskin leather, maple high-gloss woodwork, and gold hardware. It looked as bad as it sounds.

To get the most “bang for the buck,” Wood went right for the chairs, joking that the Archie Bunker look had to go. Second on her list was the carpet. It turns out that seats and carpet are the 2 most important interior features when it comes to resale.

There’s no rule of thumb correlating renovation budget to purchase price. However, given the 1982 Falcon was selling at around $1M, 10% of that ($100K) would buy a lot of newness factor and change the look dramatically. As the budget gets smaller, a designer must get more and more creative to give the owner a new look.

Changing the stitching, or modifying the tailoring, is one way to change the look of a seat without replacing it entirely.

Sometimes, however, a engineering issues get in the way. For example, an aircraft owner might want to retrofit his jet with a seat he saw on a different model aircraft. Because of engineering limitations and regulations, a designer can’t pull a seat out of one type of aircraft and drop it into another, but there’s a workaround.

What the designer can do is modify the foam and fabric of the existing seat to alter the appearance. According to Wood, personal touches like pillows, blankets, headrest covers, crystal, china, and flatware are all things an owner can change to add a personal touch without breaking the bank.

Veneers are another way to change the look of a cabin dramatically. In terms of trends, owners are currently seeking veneers with fun finishes. These are colors and patterns that add a “wow” factor or make the look “pop” when used strategically or sparingly. The overall theme that’s in vogue these days is “clean,” which is defined as a crisp, anti-cluttered feel.

The most popular color scheme is topes and grays. Keeping a color palette mostly neutral while accessorizing with bolder colors and patterns also improves resale value. It’s akin to the technique real estate agents use when telling home sellers that the best color for a quick sale is “realtor beige.”

Even with Covid-19, Western Aircraft – which employs just over 200 people – is seeing consistent demand for interior work. Perhaps owners are currently flying less and taking advantage of the downtime to retrofit their aircraft in anticipation of business travel improving next year.

If one had to define cabin items as “need to have” versus “nice to have” based on budget, efficacy, and resale value, cabinetry would be the next item after seats and carpet.

A well-known name in custom cabinetry work is Duncan Aviation, the largest privately-owned business in the world devoted to business jet support. The company is a Bombardier authorized service center (along with line authorization on Global bizjets), and offers a wide range of interior services. Technicians and master craftsmen can reveneer existing cabinetry or fabricate new ones from scratch.

Falcon 900 interior by West Star Aviation. Remodeling included modifying seat configuration to meet mission-specific requirements.

Power solutions

In accordance with the clean, crisp philosophy, clients expect hardwired controls and equipment to be neatly tucked away or hidden. Every cabin management system on the market allows entertainment and environmental systems to be controlled from a personal device, but the challenge has always been powering said devices.

Low-voltage USB ports are the modern-day equivalent of the power outlet and adapter. For ease of access, USBs can be embedded within the seat or adjacent to it.

Full vs partial renovations

Meghan Welch, director of paint and interior sales for Elliott Aviation in Moline IL, has written a guide entitled “Questions for Planning Your Interior Refurbishment” to help those considering remodeling the cabin. The resource is available online at elliottaviation.com.

The document addresses durability issues, and also raises an interesting point about inconsistent aging associated with partial renovations. If an owner opts to forgo a complete renovation, items in the cabin will age at a different rate.

The outcome depends on the philosophy of ownership. If the plan is to keep the aircraft for a long period of time while changing components slowly as budget allows, a partial renovation strategy might make financial sense.

On the other hand, if the plan is to put the plane on the market in a few years, potential buyers may be turned off by the fact that some things in the cabin look older than others.

Flightdeck upgrades

This theory applies to the cockpit as well, although that may not be obvious to the owner. The flightcrew and passengers spend time in their own distinct bubble during the course of a flight, and neither has much interest in what the other is doing – except in the case of a flight attendant, whose job it is to attend to needs in the cabin.

Unless money is of no concern, or something is mandated by regulation, owners prefer to spend money in the cabin rather than the cockpit.

Older avionics – or not having the latest technology – can increase workload and decrease situational awareness. While the aircraft is grounded for interior work is a good time for a pilot to advocate for fixing squawk items up front or adding flightdeck features that can make operating the aircraft more efficient (eg, CPDLC) and increase its value.

Conclusion

When it comes to retrofitting an aircraft, the most important variable to consider is the relationship between the 2 parties.

Some owners like to be involved down to the smallest detail, while others only make the big decisions and appoint a representative (perhaps even the pilot) to deal with the day-to-day interactions.

For a successful outcome, the owner or his/her designated representative must be able to work closely with the vendor’s designer or design manager, and believe in their vision.

Money might not be able to buy happiness, but it can buy newness, and a brand-new aircraft interior can generate happiness during use, and even more happiness in the form of a big return on investment when it’s time to sell the aircraft.


Shannon Forrest is a current line pilot, CRM facilitator and aviation safety con­sultant. He has over 10,000 hours and holds a degree in be­havioral psychology.

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