Dubai 2007: Cabin fever

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Cabin systems and furnishings account for an ever-growing proportion of the value of air transport and VIP aircraft. Brendan Gallagher looks at some of the leading products and services now vying for the attention of Gulf operators

There’s a quiet revolution under way in the aerospace industry. Where once engines and other primary systems accounted for most of the value of an airliner or corporate aircraft, now cabin equipment such as seats, in-flight entertainment, networks and premium-class fixtures and fittings make up an ever higher proportion.

Competitive pressures mean the same airliner could have its cabin “refreshed” up to five times in a 25-year life. And as the cabin contributes around 20% of the cost of a new airliner, an operator could end up spending close to the original purchase price on new interiors.

One of the biggest beneficiaries of the rocketing demand for interiors is B/E Aerospace of the US, the world’s leading supplier of seats, galleys and other furnishings. B/E announced its latest quarterly results on the eve of the show, revealing revenues of $428 million, up 49% year-on-year, and projecting a total of around $2 billion for next year.

These figures put the seat manufacturer into the same league as one of the traditional giants of aerospace such as Rockwell Collins, which has just reported annual revenues up 14% to $4.4bn. Both companies can thank a growing volume of Gulf business for some of their prosperity.

This summer Emirates announced plans to spend $50m on an enhanced first-class cabin in new-build aircraft, plus further major sums on retrofits and upgrades to its business and economy classes. A large part of that investment will end up in the coffers of B/E, which is supplying a new version of the airline’s first-class private suite, plus business class lie-flat massage seats. These have already started entering service on Emirates’ Boeing 777-300ERs and 777-200LRs.

The first-class upgrade is designed to bring a business-jet feel, with more floor space in each suite, more stowage for hand baggage and a bigger wardrobe. There is also a new communal first-class bar. Business class now features a 78in long lie-flat bed with high privacy dividers, and passengers can recline fully without encroaching on the space of the person behind.

Though Rockwell Collins has withdrawn from the top end of the in-flight entertainment market, it is still active and successful with a variety of other cabin systems for airlines and corporate/VIP aviation. One system is the Airshow 4200D moving-map and passenger information system, which Emirates has ordered for its 55 Airbus A380s. Emirates was the first airline to order Airshow 4200D.

Another Gulf carrier, Qatar Airways, is leading the way in live satellite television for international services. It is installing Rockwell Collins’ Tailwind 560 in-flight TV system in 35 Airbus A330-200/300s and A340-600s used between the Middle East and Europe.

Gulf operators are also at the forefront of converting the latest long-haul airliners into VIP transports. Swiss-based Jet Aviation  recently won the first contract for a VIP completion of a Boeing 787-9. Awarded by a client in this region, the aircraft will be delivered to Jet Aviation’s Basle facility in 2011 and completed within 15-18 months.

This news will have come as a disappointment to Hamburg-based rival Lufthansa Technik, which said in June it was in discussions with a potential VIP 787 customer. But there’s plenty still to play for, with another six 787s ordered to date for VIP conversion - not to the fabled first VIP Airbus A380, rumoured to be for Russian tycoon Roman Abramovich, though the smart money is still on a Middle Eastern buyer.

Jet Aviation has been working on an interior package for the 787 for more than two years, having partnered in 2005 with yacht and corporate aircraft interior designer Peder Eidsgaard to create concepts.

Rival Lufthansa Technik is talking to Middle Eastern customers about interiors for 787s and also for a 747-8. The company was in Dubai 12 months ago to present its 787 ideas to press and potential customers in the region. Produced by British-based Andrew Winch Designs, the concept combines an up-to-the-minute look with lavish attention to comfort. There are 32 lie-flat seats or beds – nine of them doubles. The forward lounge has multifunctional seating areas with sofas and fully reclining armchairs, and entertainment includes a 50in plasma screen on the forward bulkhead.

The company unveiled its VIP A380 ideas at the EBACE show in Geneva in 2005. Current concepts see the lower deck given over to a forward lounge, meeting rooms, the main galley, a spacious royal lounge, a dining and conference area, and a rear section with first and business-class seating for the entourage. The upper deck is reserved for the principal and guests, with a private lounge, a galley and buffet, two guest rooms with bathrooms and showers, and the VIP area with an office, bedroom and dressing area, bathroom and gym.

Texas-based Gore Design Completions built its reputation on the Airbus ACJ and Boeing BBJ and is now about to raise its game. Six weeks ago Gore was contracted to complete an Airbus A340 for an African head of state. Due to arrive at Gore’s San Antonio plant next June for a 12-month rework, it will have a forward VIP section with bathroom, bedroom, office and conference room, a VIP galley complex and seating section, and first, guest and staff seating.

Other contenders in the tussle for top-end completions include Associated Air Centre of Dallas, and Oklahoma-based King Aerospace. But ultimately Lufthansa Technik could hold a trump card in the form of its cabin systems expertise, as typified by its NICE Ethernet-based cabin network. A standard offering in the Bombardier Challenger 300 mid-size business jet and being installed in a number of Global Expresses, the system is also flying aboard VIP Boeing 747-400s.

Now it is being adapted for Boeing 787 and 747-8, while an A380 version could take shape once Airbus gets the superjumbo programme back on track. Able to support a wide range of entertainment options – including iPod docking and flat-panel-speaker surround-sound – as well as cabin management, productivity and passenger communications, NICE could prove irresistible to Gulf VIPs looking for the last word in airborne style and comfort.


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