In the section of the business jet market frequented by heads of state and the world's wealthiest moneymakers, there can be few more aspirational products than VIP versions of the big two airframers' latest types – the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787. Dreamliners destined for private or government use are already with completion houses, while outfitting of the first corporate jet A350s is set to begin in two years.
Boeing's Washington State-based neighbour Greenpoint Technologies announced in January it had won its second 787 VVIP project, for an undisclosed customer. “With the 787 coming to market there was a lot of fear and unknowns," says Mike Weisner, the company's chief customer engineer. "We took the time and care to invest and really get to know [the type] before the first customer knocked on our door.
"We’ve spent five years learning about the airplane [and] visiting the factory. An advantage to us being next door to Boeing is the access we have.”
Meanwhile, Arizona-based Associated Air Center has signed its first VIP contract for a green Boeing 787-8. The aircraft is scheduled for delivery in mid-2014. Chief executive Jack Lawless says: “This represents a monumental leap forward for the entire custom interiors completions industry, as this aircraft is unlike any other in the world.
"Its composite structure and advanced systems require unique tooling and state-of-the-art design considerations."
Performing an executive interior installation on a 787 requires special training from Boeing engineers, and so far the original equipment manufacturer has approved only eight centres to work on the jet.
In Europe, Switzerland’s AMAC Aerospace and Jet Aviation are approved, alongside Hamburg-based Lufthansa Technik. In the USA, as well as Greenpoint and Associated Air Center, Boeing approved Gore Design Completions and L-3 Platform Integration, both based in Texas. Also approved was New Zealand’s Altitude Aerospace Interiors.
Gore Design received the first of two 787-8s it is to outfit for private owners in February. The second aircraft will arrive in the third quarter of this year, and work on each of the widebodies is expected to last three years. Both aircraft will be in head-of-state configuration, the company says. Mohammed Alzeer, Gore’s general partner, says: “The Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus A350 represent the future of head-of-state aircraft.”
To date, no European completions house has announced a contract for the delivery of a VIP Dreamliner. However, last year Jet Aviation won an award from the British Design Society for its Timeless to Visionary cabin concepts for the type.
Jet Aviation has scored better with the 787’s key competitor – the Airbus A350 – which will be certificated later this year. The company bagged work on the first two VIP A350s, which will be managed and operated by Hong Kong’s BAA Jet Management. Scheduled to arrive in Basel around 2016, execution time for each aircraft interior is estimated at 18 months.
Other completion centres can expect to see more contract announcements as the OEM starts to deliver the A350 ACJ variant. Centres approved by Airbus for completions include Toulouse-based Airbus Corporate Jet Center and Taeco, of China, alongside Associated Air Center, AMAC Aerospace, Gore Design, Lufthansa Technik and Indianapolis-based Comlux.
Meanwhile, Airbus is pushing its ACJ330-200, several of which have already been delivered to completion centres. David Velupillai, marketing and communications director for Airbus’s corporate jet division, believes there has been a great deal of market interest in the type. He says: “It has a huge cabin, is a proven aircraft and [is] one of our most popular types in the commercial sector. It is also easy to disguise on the ramp at airports, should owners wish to be discreet.”
However, the narrowbody ACJ319 is still the biggest seller in Airbus’s range. At last month’s Asian Business Aviation Convention and Exhibition in Shanghai, the airframer introduced its Elegance concept, featuring a modular cabin that allows customers to choose from several lounge, office, dining and conference configurations.
Elegance includes a bedroom and bathroom aft and a galley towards the nose, with the customer selecting the midsection. The design costs around $10 million less than its $90 million, fully customisable cousin – the ACJ320.
Meanwhile, Bombardier announced the first VIP version of its CSeries earlier this year, with Abu Dhabi’s Falcon Aviation Services being the first announced customer for the type. Falcon’s chief operating officer, Capt Mahmoud Ismael, says: "The superb versatility of the CSeries aircraft will allow us to offer a unique aircraft configuration, specifically catering to business, corporate and elite travellers in the Middle East."
"Included in our CSeries aircraft family are major network carriers, national carriers, a low-cost airline, leasing companies and now a corporate service provider," adds Mike Arcamone, president of Bombardier Commercial Aircraft.
One VIP variant not faring quite so well, however, is the $50 million Superjet International Sukhoi Business Jet. Last summer, launch customer Comlux said it had opted not to complete the first two aircraft it announced it would take in October 2011. However, Superjet is in the process of setting up its own VIP completions unit in Venice.
Until now, the completions sector has been concentrated at a few houses in Europe and North America. However, with demand coming from the Middle East and Asia, there have long been rumours of existing specialists – perhaps with local investors – establishing completions facilities in these emerging markets.
Two of the world’s largest US-based firms – Gore Design and Associated Air Center – now have Middle Eastern owners: Dubai’s DAE and Saudi Arabia’s MAZ group, respectively.
The region is also home to many business aircraft, but owners currently have to fly to centres in Europe or the USA to kit out their jets.
There have been various attempts to set up a completions shop in the Gulf – including a tentative joint venture by Bahrain’s Mena Aerospace – but it looks like a new deal signed between Falcon Aviation Services and Dubai Aviation City will be the first serious offering.
Falcon is to build a hangar large enough to house a Boeing 747-8, and will develop a VVIP completions centre at Dubai World Central. Traditionally, the stumbling block to developing such an enterprise is a lack of skilled specialists. However, Falcon’s Ismael is determined to bring the capability to the region, and says he has recruited several industry experts already. “We are importing the talent, and there are pretty well-known names among them. We have got the right people to get it established," he says.
Falcon already provides maintenance, repair and overhaul services, and has approval from a number of airframers. Ismael says he has identified three widebodies and several narrowbodies in the region that are due for heavy checks over the next couple of years.
Work will start on the hangar in the third quarter of this year, and the site is expected to be up and running by 2015. Ismael adds: “We will be cutting our teeth on refurbishment, and then working our way gradually up.”
Indeed, the overhaul aspect of MRO is popular worldwide at the moment. Refurbishment – rather than green completions – is the focus for several of the industry’s big players. Many original BBJs are coming up for heavy checks – an ideal opportunity to install new kit or revitalise seats and carpets.
Brian Barber, vice-president sales and marketing for Lufthansa Technik’s BizJet International division, says: “There is a higher need for refurbishment on BBJs at the moment, as they are coming up to time for their D checks.”
BizJet operates three lines dedicated to narrowbodies in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the world’s greatest proportion of BBJs in service fly in the USA. Barber adds: “Many people are looking for ways to control their [in-flight entertainment] with their devices. There are also plenty of new offerings in terms of leather and other materials that just didn’t exist 12 years ago.”
Canada-headquartered Flying Colours would agree. Last month the company announced the delivery of its first complete carbonfibre interior-reconfigured Bombardier Challenger 850 for a Hong Kong client. A joint effort between Flying Colours and the customer, the 16-passenger, three-cabin VIP jet features predominantly black and grey carbonfibre surfaces, alongside an ebony hardwood veneer.
It is also interesting to note that China – an emerging market known for its preference for new aircraft – has developed a strong appetite for preowned aircraft, and consequently retrofitting.
Second hand aircraft accounted for 47% of deliveries into Greater China last year, according to Hong Kong consultancy Asian Sky Group, which produces an annual business jet fleet report for the region. General manager Jeff Lowe says: “This is one of the most interesting revelations of this year’s research, and demonstrates where the market is heading.”
Flying Colours is in the middle of numerous refurbishments for Asian clients, including a Bombardier Challenger 604 for a Chinese operator.
Comlux America, meanwhile, has announced a contract to conduct maintenance and refurbishment work on a BBJ operated by Hong Kong management company Sino Jet. The jet is due to arrive at the company’s completions centre in Indianapolis in the second quarter. Comlux is also anticipating strong demand for maintenance and completion work in China. According to chief executive Richard Gaona, the firm is “in talks” with a few partners with a view to establishing maintenance offerings for second hand aircraft that will need local support.
Delaware-based completions, refurbishment and auxiliary fuel tank provider PATS Aircraft Systems announced at that it had delivered a revamped BBJ2 to the government of Indonesia for presidential transport. Configured to carry up to 67 passengers, the aircraft is the first BBJ to incorporate the Boeing Sky interior. The firm also announced VVIP interior completion on a new BBJ2 for a private Asia-Pacific customer. The green BBJ is scheduled for delivery in October, with completion anticipated toward the end of 2015.
The house with the most Asian customers, however, is European heavyweight Lufthansa Technik, which has outfitted 16 of 21 VIP airliners based in Asia – 12 of which are in China.
The major centres are promoting their retrofit capabilities. Earlier this year Greenpoint announced it had taken delivery of several business jets and turboprop aircraft for maintenance and refurbishment at its hangar facilities in Denton, Texas. The aircraft included the company’s first VVIP BBJ3.
Greenpoint has also scored with its overhead space utilisation loft – designed for multiple sleeper berths or lounges. The loft is featured in the aft cabin of AMAC Aerospace’s 747-8 Intercontinental project, which the Swiss firm is carrying out for an unnamed Middle Eastern customer.
AMAC is also working on its first completion contract for an Asian client. The aircraft – an ACJ A319 – will undergo a complete nose to tail completion.
So, as Geneva’s European Business Aviation Convention and Exhibition approaches, composites and retrofitting are high on the agenda.
It will be interesting to see what developments are on offer for aftermarket projects, as well as prestigious new offerings for the VIP version of Airbus’ latest jet.
BOX- OUT TO ACCOMPANY FEATURE
IFEC no longer just a ‘nice to have’
More than any other asset, in-flight entertainment and connectivity (IFEC) is a necessity on new and refurbished business aircraft.
Boeing and Airbus are approving IFEC kit at the green stage of new commercial variants, forcing VIP players to look at supplemental type certification for retrofitting cabin management systems (CMS) and satellite communications equipment.
Associated Air Center, for example, recently received STC approval for Boeing 737 types for the dual band Satcom Direct Router.
A good CMS is essential. Generally, an interface will be via the user's personal electronic device (PED), such as a smartphone, tablet or iPod. The PED then interacts wirelessly with everything from the automatic window shutters to the music system.
The market heavyweights are developing extras to differentiate themselves. Honeywell Aerospace, for example, has launched a HD audio-video on demand upgrade for its Ovation Select CMS. Rockwell Collins offers Skybox, a similar service that allows passengers to share Hollywood-protected content wirelessly to and from their PEDs.
Hamburg based IDAIR – a joint venture between Lufthansa Technik and Panasonic Avionics – offers LHT’s Nice CMS, alongside Panasonic’s Global Communications Suite.