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Saturday, November 1, 2008

Incredible Interiors: Modern VIP Cabins

By Andrew D. Parker, Managing Editor

With cabin options ranging from off-the-wall to entirely new, the interior plays an increasingly important role for business jet operators and private individuals.

Whether it’s taking a warm shower, relaxing on a corner couch, sleeping on a queen-size mattress or enjoying a Ralph Lauren or Versace-themed interior, the range of cabin options available to business jet and private operators is limited only by what can be certified. According to various manufacturers and completions providers, customers have asked for waterbeds, hot tubs, stationary bikes, bean bag chairs, a "doggie door" pull-out litter box or even a chandelier, as well as "just about anything you can imagine from your home," according to one observer.

Even without all the extra bells and whistles, the interior of the modern business aircraft has evolved, incorporating cabin management systems, wireless Internet and PDA connections, stain-proof seat fabrics and modern design elements. This year’s National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) Convention in Orlando, Fla. served as a showpiece for interior upgrades, as several manufacturers displayed cabins for new aircraft programs and updated versions of classic models, including the Bombardier Learjet 85, Cessna Citation Columbus, Gulfstream G250, Hawker 450XP and King Air 350i.

Interior Evolution

According to Rick Van Thiel, vice president of completion design and sales support for Gulfstream, the role of the interior has changed in recent years. Ten or 15 years ago, the cabin of an aircraft "was where a traveler just sat," he says.

"What we see now is people outfitting the aircraft much like they outfit their home. Because it’s their area, their place to relax, while going from point A to point B."

Many Gulfstream operators fly overnight, especially on transatlantic flights. "The interior becomes their bedroom," Van Thiel says. "So they treat the aircraft as a house now, or a place to do business, a mobile office. It takes on different roles for different customers, but it’s no longer that the most important person on the plane is the pilot, now it’s very focused on the back of the aircraft." Up until around 2002, Gulfstream put most of its development efforts into the cockpit and didn’t pay as much attention to the cabin. But around that time, the business mix began to change from mostly corporate operators "to a good number of private, high-net-worth individuals," Van Thiel notes.

"But that small change in percentages actually drove the corporate world to look into creating a more productive area while they are traveling, and hence the office-in-the-sky technology that’s come on now. You can do as much or a little in the air as you want to."

Mike Minchow is manager of completions, sales and design for Duncan Aviation, which provides maintenance and inspection services, cabin and cockpit retrofits, and paint and interior work in Lincoln, Neb. and Battle Creek, Mich. One more recent project that Duncan completed involved a "retro interior" on a Gulfstream I, according to Minchow.

He says the customer "wanted a very unique and customized interior... using a lot of colors, materials and textures dating back to the 1970s and 1980s. Some lime greens, purples — colors that were a big trend back then which are actually kind of popular again today." Minchow adds that the GI became known as the "Austin Powers" airplane.

"Through the years we’ve had customers ask for a lot of different things. Unique materials, whether it be cork flooring or a granite or marble floor in the entry area, to custom artwork that they wanted to display or stingray skins on the lower sidewalls," Minchow says. "One airplane we worked on had a safari motif with zebra hides and a combination of different themed elements, such as jaguar prints and things like that."

Lufthansa Technik installs VIP interiors on various Airbus ACJs and Boeing BBJs, as well as a variety of business jet airframes, from its completion center in Hamburg, Germany. Joerg Loewes, deputy director design and specification for the completion center, says that Lufthansa Technik does not see too many unusual requests, but rather clients with "something totally individual" in mind outside the mainstream.

While sometimes they might be inspired by a particular designer, he continues, "usually they have somebody in the back of their mind who has designed their house already or who has been referred by their friends, someone who might already be famous in yacht or aircraft designs."

Companies and private individuals that Lufthansa serves fall into two categories, according to Loewes: "Either it is completely a toy, getting them from A to B in the most luxurious environment you can think of, or it is a business tool for them. In that case, it is still luxurious, but it has a totally different attitude concerning the interior, not opulent but more functional."

Challenges

Minchow points out that some of the biggest challenges when completing a custom interior involve certification, engineering and timelines. He says that a lot of thought and energy is invested at the front end, or in the initial conceptual design phase, "so that we’re not leading the customer down a path that we know we can’t get to."

Specialized cabins that involve one or more elements that have never been certified before can also add time to a completion project. Minchow stresses that it’s important to meet with the customer first, establish realistic timelines, set milestones and keep communication open throughout the process. "Doing the due diligence and making sure that we understand exactly what is requested, and feel confident that we’ve got the certification path from the very beginning, is going to make that project go smooth from start to finish," he says.

Loewes points out that additional weight is always a major issue. When a customer asks for something specialized, Lufthansa attempts to find a solution that works, but is always constrained by what can achieve certification. "Anything that is moving inside the cabin has to withstand the various turbulence and movement that an aircraft does, so we focus on things that can actually be installed."

"Huge glass artifacts are always representing a certain problem," he continues. "You can overcome this... but they do represent the biggest problem — uncontrolled weight — because everything that we are going to build in the aircraft has to be certified in the end." Loewes adds that a waiver request can’t be submitted for every FAA or EASA rule and that completions providers have to provide "equivalent means of safety."

"If you’re reconfiguring something custom that hasn’t been done before, there’s no small or large modification in FAA’s mind." Minchow adds. "You’re modifying the type certificate of the airplane."

Depending on the model, Gulfstream offers a range of floorplan options for its aircraft interiors. The manufacturer does offer custom work in addition to its select or tailored interiors, "but the percentage of people that take custom is actually not as high as you might think," according to Van Thiel.

More than 80 percent rely on Gulfstream’s expertise and choose a select or tailored interior. "They realize that when you customize an interior, you’re literally asking us to prototype something in your aircraft, because you’re building a one-off. Once you’ve made up the prototype, there still may be maintainability issues that can come up in the future," he explains.

Cost of Custom

Pricing and timing can vary depending on the project. For instance, Loewes says, if a customer wants an interior that involves three or five items that are completely new, then Lufthansa has to work with regulatory bodies to conduct burn tests or flammability treatments before moving forward with a contract.

"So there’s a lot of evaluation and experimental engineering with that [custom] aircraft. Price-wise, these aircraft can be 30 to 40 percent higher, purely driven by the cost of all that engineering to certify something that has never been used on an aircraft before." Downtime can increase as well. On average, Lufthansa Technik completes a VIP BBJ in around five months, but with specialized cabin elements involved, it can take up to eight or nine months, he says.

Finding the Right Touch

According to Minchow, customers will mention that they like the color palette inside their car or a room in their home. One aircraft owner loved the fabric from the couches at the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas, so Duncan contacted the designer and built a palette around those colors.

"The customers we’re dealing with are getting influences from all over the place," Minchow says. "They typically latch on to one thing, then we build around those centerpieces of the design." When a new customer comes in, Duncan assigns an individual designer that discusses material selection, seat design, colors, and any other changes or upgrades for the cabin.

The process is weighed heavily toward the initial design phase but once complete, the designer will hand off the material to the engineering and productions teams.

"Then they become the customer’s eyes and ears, or quality control, while the project is onsite," Minchow explains.

"They’re doing constant periodic checks to make sure that the seat design is exactly what the customer intended, that the foam build is exactly what the customer wants, etc."

Lufthansa Technik conducts a requirement-capturing or fact-finding phase, sort of an initial design process, before a contract is signed. This phase, which can take anywhere from a few weeks to eight months and averages around six months, involves answering questions about the mission profile of the aircraft, typical city pairs the operator flies, what the living quarters should look like and if the operator is willing to trade off some range to include unique interior elements.

"These are very important questions we need to clarify in this phase," Loewes says.

Just from experience, Lufthansa can rule out certain wishes early in the process, which Loewes points out can be somewhat tricky because many VIPs are not accustomed to hearing the word no.

"We use other alternative phrases," he says, adding that they "try to look for something else that does the same job." Throughout the process, designers from Lufthansa present detailed photo-realistic images of the aircraft interior — images that have increased in accuracy as software and design programs have advanced. These renderings are now included within the full package approved as part of the formal contract, which helps avoid variations between the original specifications and the final product and large changes in the production phase that can be much more expensive.

"The aim, of course, is to have very little surprising moments at the end of the day when the customer sees the ready product," says Loewes. "He can always compare that to the contract and the design package. There should be very little or no difference from what we have shown him at the very beginning."

Citation Columbus

Cessna unveiled an interior mock-up of its eight-seat Citation Columbus in Orlando, following two years of collecting customer feedback about the $27-million aircraft. President and CEO Jack Pelton said that from the more developed cockpit to the baggage compartment, the company’s interior design group did a good job of "synthesizing the market feedback" from a recent worldwide tour to gather input. "The result is a flexible, functional and very chic interior," he added.

Scheduled to enter service in 2014, the Citation Columbus will feature a flat-floor cabin, new color palette and sidewalls, a larger galley, flight attendant seat, wireless connections for laptops and PDAs, lighting upgrades, heated seats and adjustable cup holders. Cessna plans to announce the cabin management system and other features at a later date.

Gulfstream G250

During the convention, Gulfstream unveiled its super midsize G250, which features a transonic wing, Honeywell HTF7250G engines, PlaneView 250 cockpit with Rockwell Collins Fusion avionics, and a variety of technology improvements in the cabin over its predecessor, the G200. Interior features include 19 windows, 100 percent fresh air circulation, and noise reduction technology to reduce sound levels in the cabin. The aircraft has an improved galley and large lavatory with two windows, modern sink and a vacuum toilet system. The galley has a sink with slide-out flat surface, additional storage space and an ice drawer. Storage space totaling 120 cubic feet is available in the baggage compartment, as well as additional space in a forward closet, lavatory closet and divan end cabinets. G250 deliveries are projected to start in 2011.

Van Thiel says that the company decided a few years back that the G100 and G200 lines needed updating. Gulfstream looked at the effort as an "opportunity to refresh" and establish a new brand for its interior line, and Van Thiel points out that some of the design elements in the G250 cabin are similar to the large-cabin G650.

During an Oct. 5 press conference, Gulfstream President Joe Lombardo noted that customers "played a definitive role" in the G250’s design through its advanced technology customer advisory team (ATCAT). The ATCAT and customer advisory board (CAB) have been in existence for seven years, and have worked on the G250 for more than two years. It is made up of 75 customer representatives split up into various committees — flight ops, maintenance, product enhancement and reliability, cabin/interior and flight attendants. The advisory panels have helped transform the G100 into the G150, the GIV into the G450 and the G500 into the G550, as well as provide input on the G250 and G650.

"Everything that you see in that aircraft [G250], from the heated wings and the T-tail to most of the elements in the interior, they’ve had input into," Van Thiel notes. Items such as storage space and volume, the walk-through baggage area, the increased size of the lavatory, "and just the overall feel" were the result of a collaborative effort between company designers and the ATCAT. "Every time we came up with a new idea we would introduce it to the team and get some feedback," he adds.

Hawker 450XP and King Air 350i

Wichita, Kan.-based Hawker Beechcraft Corp. (HBC) launched its King Air 350i turboprop and Hawker 450XP light jet programs on Oct. 5. Highlights of the 6-passenger King Air 350i include Rockwell Collins Venue cabin management system, a redesigned interior, noise reduction technology and the company’s FlexCabin capability, which allows operators to reconfigure the cabin. Interior upgrades include a new headliner, seats and tables, LED lights, electric window shades and assessable baggage area, as well as an optional vanity area for the lavatory with mirror and running water. First delivery is expected in the fourth quarter of 2009.

The interior of the Hawker 450XP is based on the 900XP, including dual-zone climate controls, a refreshment center, USB connectors to an iPod, PDA or laptop, 10-inch swing-out monitors, power outlets and refinished cabin sidewalls. Venue is also included on the 450XP, which will use Pratt & Whitney Canada PW535 turbofans. FAA certification of the Hawker 450XP is anticipated in the second quarter of 2010.

Learjet 85

Visitors to the NBAA static display could view a mock-up of the Learjet 85, featuring a newly designed interior that measures 665 cubic feet. Among the cabin features are 12 x 16-inch windows, 30 inches between seats, a full service galley, three storage closets that can be accessed in flight and fully berthable seats.

Also debuting in Orlando was a shower for the Global Express XRS. Annie Côté, marketing, research and development for Bombardier’s Business Aircraft Interior Montreal Completion division, explained that the system has a total capacity of 45.5 gallons, which allows around 40 minutes of shower time. She added that the shower features a wet zone that transitions into a dry zone, giving complete access to the Global’s baggage area.

Measuring Success

Minchow says that Duncan deems an interior project successful if it meets the customer’s expectations and lasts over the long haul. "We’ve had the benefit of seeing how an interior is going to hold up over time," he points out.

"We see it after the customer’s operated the airplane for seven years and we find out what’s broken, how the hinges haven’t held up, or how the foam in the seat cushions has broken down. We’ve built a lot of that experience into our processes and don’t want to just refurbish the cabin, but improve it and return a better product than what was brought in."

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