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Thursday, March 1, 2012

Upgrading the Interior

Operators look to translate advances in home theater systems and office networks into business jet cabins

Tim Sprinkle

When Blake Hogge meets with potential clients about updating the interiors of their business jets, he knows pretty much what they’re going to be looking for. “High-def, Blu-ray, touch-screen, stream from iPad, control with iPhone,” he says. “Everything that people want in their high-end homes they now want in their airplanes.”

That’s been the trend for a few years now, explains Hogge, senior manager of avionics sales with Jet Aviation at its St. Louis large and long-range business jet completion center. As home systems and personal entertainment technology have improved in recent years, demand for the same sorts of products has moved to the air. Gone are the days of heavy tube TVs and VCR-based video systems in aircraft. Now the market is all about touch-screen monitors, LED lighting, flat-screen displays, high-definition video, wireless streaming audio/video products, surround sound and integration of personal electronic devices, namely iPads.

“The technology of the home is slowly finding its way to the cabin,” Hogge said. “And it seems like the discretionary money is now being spent on the back of the plane instead of the cockpit. It’s been growing like this for a couple of years, but we’re seeing lots of corporations and high net-worth individuals really starting to spend their capital on themselves, on the back of the plane.”

Jet Aviation and other completion centers have worked to secure certifications for installs of this connectivity product to keep up with customer demands. Last year, Jet Aviation St. Louis developed a supplemental type certificate (STC) to install equipment for Aircell’s Gogo Biz and SwiftBroadband technology, creating a Wi-Fi hotspot in the cabin, for Learjet 40 and 45 series aircraft. The company said it planned to adapt the STC to other aircraft including the Challenger 300 and 605, Global and Gulfstream V.

Additionally, West Star Aviation, based in East Alton, Ill., in January was awarded STC approval to install Wi-Fi on the Gulfstream V. The certification includes connectivity via both or either Inmarsat SwiftBroadband and the Aircell Gogo Biz networks using the Aircell CTR wireless router.

“We have seen a significant trend in our customers to provide the same connectivity in the aircraft as they enjoy on the ground,” said Rick Brainard, vice president of sales at West Star Aviation. “We have made wireless solutions a priority for all the aircraft types we service, and the Gulfstream V is the most recent example.”

“Internet connectivity [in the cabin] in huge,” said Aaron Berg, technical sales manager, avionics at West Star Aviation, told Avionics Magazine. “I would say probably 60 percent of everything avionics related we did last year had to do with Internet connectivity.... High-speed internet was huge last year and it’ll be huge this year.”

Further spurring the installation of these types of systems is technology prices have fallen in recent years, so what used to be a multi-million dollar overhaul can now be accomplished in the low six figures. Hogge says the average business jet cabin upgrade can cost anywhere from $500,000 to close to $1 million. As a result, the market for cabin management systems (CMS) and interior upgrades has been opened up to new customers.

“I think we’re just seeing the beginning of this,” Hogge said.

It’s a trend that avionics OEMs are seeing as well. “Based on conversations with our customers, today’s business passengers expect their onboard digital systems to be better than, or at least on par with, those they have in their homes and offices,” says Rishiraj Singh, director and business leader, Business and General Aviation, Asia Pacific, with Honeywell Aerospace. “They require, among other amenities, reliable connectivity during their flight to stay productive as though they were physically in the office.”

‘We have seen a significant trend in our customers to provide the same connectivity in the aircraft as they enjoy on the ground.’
Rick Brainard, vice president of sales at West Star Aviation.

The industry’s answer to these requirements has been to create cabin management systems that allow users to “stay connected, informed and productive throughout their journey.” It’s all about creating the perfect flying office.

“Like the leisure traveler, the business traveler’s in-flight experience is critical,” Singh says, explaining that Honeywell is focused on creating a comfortable, seamless interface that’s easy for any passenger to use. “Creature comforts are just as important. We have put lighting, seats, temperature, galley and window shade controls at the passengers’ fingertips. And because we have digital distribution throughout the cabin, passengers can watch vivid, full high-definition video.”

For example, Honeywell’s Ovation Select digital cabin management system, which received FAA certification last October, is designed to function as a central interface hub for the whole cabin, allowing passengers to connect to both office and entertainment systems as well as controlling just about everything they might need right from their seat. The idea is to allow customers to create the exact system that meets their needs, incorporating high-speed satellite communications with the latest in consumer electronics. Honeywell said the system’s Ethernet-backbone architecture is scalable, allowing for installation in general aviation aircraft up to and including air transport category business and personal aircraft.

“Discerning business passengers expect reliable connectivity so they can be just as productive onboard their plane as they are in the office,” said Tony Brancato, vice president for Business and General Aviation Aftermarket at Honeywell Aerospace.

In addition, Rockwell Collins launched its Venue cabin management system in 2007 as the first high-definition setup on the market. Since then, the company says it has shipped more than 100 systems to business jet buyers with no let up in sight. Lupita Ho, Rockwell Collin’s principal marketing manager for cabin systems, says flexibility is the key to today’s systems. “We built the Venue architecture in a different way. There are many different platforms out there, so we built the system to be very scalable and configurable so it can be adapted when new technologies come along. Now people want to be plugging in their iPods and iPhones, and our systems make them easy to integrate.”

Last year at the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) conference, Rockwell Collins introduced a high-definition version of its Cabin Electronic System (CES HD) for Bombardier Global 5000, Global 6000 and Challenger 605, featuring touch-screen in-seat and galley displays; enhanced Airshow moving maps; and HD bulkhead and credenza monitors.

Many manufacturers are also embracing the iOs system from Apple’s iPhone, iPad and iPod as a control option, allowing users to control their cabin systems via simple, downloadable apps. Rockwell Collin’s Venue system, for example, can be managed right from the passenger’s iPhone or iPod Touch, eliminating the need for propriety remote controls.

Of course, there’s more to the modern cabin than just the management system. Gulfstream’s director of completions sales, William Gay, says today’s business aviation customers are asking for more private areas, such as state rooms in their aircraft, as well as now-standard video viewing options and interfaces for their personal electronic devices.

“Tops in terms of popularity is a cabin system that’s both reliable and easy to operate,” Gay says. “At the same time, customers want additional entertainment options, so original equipment manufacturers are being challenged to provide those additional options while at the same time maintaining the simplicity of the cabin management system.”

As an airframe manufacturer, Gulfstream is also working to enhance its brand identity via its own unique interior aesthetic. Consider it the “Gulfstream cabin,” and it’s something the company hopes its buyers will appreciate when shopping for new aircraft.

“The brand DNA we established with the all-new Gulfstream G650 interior has been carried over to the Gulfstream G280 and is now available as an option on the G450 and G550 with the Elite interior,” Gay says. “Customers who select the Elite option will see that the signature G650 look has been carefully tailored to accentuate the attributes of the G550 and G450.”

Connectivity the Key

Despite all of the developments in in-cabin entertainment and control in the last 10 years, many in the industry are excited about the next big step in cabin systems: the launch in a few years of Ka-band wireless Internet service.

Backed by Inmarsat’s satellite wireless network, Ka-band systems will offer the speed and reliability of today’s wired ground services without the high cost or heavy equipment typically associated with in-flight Internet. It’s the connectivity option that many business flyers have been hoping for.

“The current pipeline for in-flight connectivity is either too slow or too expensive for most business users,” says Rockwell Collins’ Ho, “but they all want to stay connected. Once we are able to offer Ka-band service we’ll be able to get more content to the aircraft, enabling true in-flight streaming and other services.”

Still, that’s not to say there aren’t in-flight communications options already in place, like the air-to-ground and satellite-based services.

Aircell, based outside of Denver, is the only FCC and FAA approved provider of in-flight wireless Internet service in the United States via an air-to-ground network and it operates on its own proprietary 800 MHz spectrum network.

According to the company, its Gogo Biz In-Flight Internet service is currently in use onboard U.S.-based business jets and commercial aircraft and, since it is similar to the air-to-ground technology that’s used by most nationwide cell data providers, it’s a fairly light and fairly speedy option.

Aircell also offers a Ku-band satellite service that is installed in some 200 business and government aircraft worldwide, as well as the new SwiftBroadband global satellite service for customers who need worldwide connectivity.

The good news for business fliers and aircraft manufacturers is that the cabin management market is still in the developmental stages. In fact, Jet Aviation’s Hogge expects to see continued growth during the next few years as new technologies come out, prices fall and buyers look to improve their aircraft.

“We have 10- to 15-year-old cabin management systems out there that are becoming obsolete, so a lot of customers have to come in and change their systems soon,” he says. “And, given all of the new technologies that are available for the CMS now, we expect to see four to six complete gut and replace cabin jobs this year.”

And it’s not just existing owners. Hogge also expects buyers of new aircraft to be more focused on interior systems going forward, given the popularity of the industry.

The Cost Friendly Option?

But is this really good news for the overall airframe market? Given the tough economic environment, will customers now choose to simply upgrade their cabin systems rather than invest in new aircraft? So far, the answer seems to be, “maybe, maybe not.”

“In our experience, the two aren’t mutually exclusive,” says Gulfstream’s Gay of the cabin’s hit to aircraft sales. “A cabin system upgrade will not impact the decision to purchase a new aircraft. Gulfstream continues to see strong sales of large-cabin aircraft and renewed interest in mid-cabin, so new aircraft sales, at this point, have not been greatly impacted by the slow economy.”

Jet Aviation’s Hogge, on the other hand, sees it differently.

“We’re seeing clients who won’t spend $100 million on a new airplane instead choose to spend $1 million on a new cabin and keep flying. It really just depends on the customer and what they need.”

West Star Aviation’s Berg said his facility will do six or so major cabin retrofit upgrades on aircraft that are 10 to 20 years old.

“We’ve seen a big push for people keeping their aircraft and putting some money into it. It seems like people are starting to spend some money now and we expect cabin management retrofits to be a very big part of 2012,” Berg said.

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