Wednesday, April 1, 2009
The High Life: Flying in Style
Life in the corporate VIP cabin.
It wasn’t all that long ago when a copy of the Wall Street Journal, a pair of headsets and a bag of cashews left on the seat were the only things that made a regular helicopter fit for transporting an executive. Oh, how the times have changed!
Top corporate and government officials don’t have to be aboard their $50 million jet planes in order to travel in five-star style anymore. They can now hop into their VIP helicopters and still travel in luxury and comfort on those relatively short trips between the airport and the office parking lot. Just ask the folks at any of the world’s rotorcraft dealers, especially the people at Aero Toy Store (ATS) of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and they’ll tell you that there are some unusual niceties aboard executive helicopters these days.
"Unusualness comes from what people are generally used to in corporate jets," said Tony Cosimano, ATS’s vice president of helicopter sales and operations. "We have every amenity that you can possibly have in the back of the helicopter."
Many of the ideas for the upgrades found in the aft cabin of today’s helicopters are ideas that were stolen from the corporate jet world, where plush seats, polished furniture and electronic gadgetry are the kinds of luxuries the corner office crowd has come to expect.
"All of our installations are really custom tailored to VVVIPs," said Cosimano, who said the three Vs stand for "very, very, very" important people.
Unlike many companies that cater to a more elite level of clientele by building custom-equipped aircraft to individual specifications, ATS orders customized jets and helicopters, and sells them ready-to-go through its own sales offices in Fort Lauderdale, Montreal and Beverly Hills. Its choices of equipment, however, are based on what it knows the traveling executive is looking for.
ATS can start with almost any corporate-worthy aircraft, but primarily uses the AgustaWestland AW139 and Grand platforms as blank canvases. From there, it teams up with Pininfarina, the automotive company known worldwide for the interiors it has designed for wish-list car makers, such as Ferrari, Maserati and Jaguar.
"We use the finest materials available in aircraft completions," said Cosimano, who added that comfort must also extend to the acoustic environment. "[The interior] has a third generation cocoon system, which means that it has a complete noise attenuating system. No question. It’s the quietest helicopter on the market."
With the general stage set, what can today’s high-level executives expect to find aboard their airborne rotary office?
Forget about the hard, cloth-covered seats in the coach section of most airliners, or even the slightly softer recliners located in first class. The AW139s found in ATS’s new helicopter inventory are equipped with a pair of thick, forward-facing captains chairs covered in soft, top quality leather for the VVVIPs Cosimano talked about. Each can swivel a few degrees inboard for cozier in-flight conversations.
Across the way from the two large chairs are four narrower leather seats facing aft, presumably for accompanying staffers or the occasional executive offspring traveling with the CEO. That brings the grand total of cabin seats aboard an AW139, which was designed to carry 12-15 passengers in an offshore configuration, to a spacious six.
Today’s corporate helicopter has to keep the CEO or head of state in touch with the rest of the world. So, hidden away in a center cabinet made of rich, highly polished wood is an Iridium satellite air telephone, the gold standard for the aviation industry. Its specially designed circuitry and digital technology provide clear communications that won’t interfere with the navigation systems on the flight deck. Calls are clear and static free, no matter where the aircraft is located. Even the pilots can make calls to arrange for ground transportation or other services from their own handset on the flight deck.
And since the flight home may have come after a long workday, a 12 volt DC jack is available to recharge that worn out cell phone battery.
There’s an old saying that goes, "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." So, today’s executive aircraft can come with a variety of entertainment options. DVD and CD disk players are almost considered standard options aboard corporate helicopters. ATS’s AW139 is no exception with its DVD/CD combo unit that can show movies on flat-panel monitors mounted to the fore and aft bulkheads. Quality audio is delivered through personal headsets or the compartment’s own speaker system.
And speaking of sound, the Pininfarina interior offers an iPod docking system, for listening to one’s own music, and XM Satellite Radio for checking out a different play list.
Most functions for the video and sound systems are controlled by a touch screen panel recessed in the center console, which also hides an ice cooler, beverage butler, snack drawer and crystal tumblers.
When the movie is finished, passengers can pass the time by watching the progress of their flight on a moving map system wired into the cabin’s monitors. It provides a real-time, look-down or "God’s eye view," as it is sometimes called, of the aircraft (in symbol form) flying over the terrain.
"The database is a Sagem, which is updated every 28 days," said Cosimano. "It can be specified for North America, South America... there’s a European database, too. I saw it when I was there delivering an aircraft."
If watching the flight’s progress through computer graphics isn’t realistic enough for the traveler, the monitor can be switched to provide a view from any one of three externally mounted cameras; a fixed-view camera on the tail facing forward, another fixed lens on the cowling facing aft, or a belly camera that can be zoomed in and out by the cabin’s occupants.
For passenger safety, security and sometimes convenience, there are interior cameras, as well. "[The pilots] can see both sets of seats – the forward-facing and the aft-facing – from the cockpit by turning on various cameras," explained Cosimano. "When the cameras are on the passengers in the back, the red lights are blinking just like a television camera, so that the passengers know."
Once the work has been done, the movie has been watched and the outside scenery has faded into the night, a weary executive and his or her entourage may desire a more restful environment. To accommodate this, the harsh working lights of the aft cabin can be turned off and replaced by the soft glow of multi-colored up-wash lights.
"Upwash lights are lights that are actually above the window," explained Cosimano. "So, they actually light up the overhead. You can do red, green, blue and white and any combination thereof," he said. "If you hit the red and the green, you’ll get who-knows-what color," he chuckled.
For privacy, isolation from the flight deck is accomplished by way of a barrier similar to one that might separate that same executive from a limousine driver. "The shade can come in either leather or wood," said Cosimano. "It completely isolates the cabin and the cockpit."
Cosimano, who carefully side-stepped questions about the cost of his company’s luxurious aircraft, said that business is good. Aero Toy Store has aircraft flying around the world, and according to him, receives a lot of repeat business. Even in today’s economy, the company’s jet operations are still healthy. "In fact, that’s our primary business," he said.
But if you want one of the dealer’s top-selling AgustaWestland Grands or an AW139 and they don’t have one "on the lot," so to speak, you can expect to wait a little while. Each aircraft can take three months for the completion work alone. But just one ride in the finished product will more than likely prove the wait worthwhile!