“You complete me,” declared Jerry Maguire to his Dorothy in the schmaltzy 1996 movie named after him. Eighteen years later, one trusts their happy relationship is still going strong – unlike that between the large US interiors houses and American aircraft buyers. The latter seem to be eschewing the notion of a soul mate for life, preferring to take a more pragmatic approach in their choice of a completions partner – that is, if the established players are to be believed.
The landscape has changed somewhat and customers are shopping around. But there are customers still. According to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, global deliveries of turbine business airplanes jumped 7.2% in this year’s first quarter over the first quarter of 2013. This hike in deliveries should be manifesting itself in the interiors industry round about now.
Companies are taking a proactive approach for looking for new clients. Delaware’s PATS Aircraft Systems, for example, a completion specialist for widebodies and Boeing Business Jets – and sole provider of auxiliary fuel tank installations for BBJs, says it has been focusing on “finding more customers overseas and putting more emphasis on its refurbishment business”. The company’s auxiliary tank installations slowed to four this year from the formerly typical six to eight, but it says it is anticipating fresh interest when the BBJ Max becomes available in 2018.
Associated Air Center president James Colleary says, “Several newer firms have entered the market and have been driving the prices down, so everyone has suffered. However, I don’t think this will last. Ultimately, things will go back to basics. You need the knowhow to manage such large aircraft projects, as well as the craftsmen skills developed over many years.”
A spokesman for Akridge Aircraft Interiors, which has been trading since 1994 and specialises in executive, corporate, and head-of-state aircraft interior modifications, agrees. He says that patience and long-developed workshop capabilities are vital, “in the age of big business, where quality has taken a back seat to instant gratification”. The company’s portfolio includes many types of corporate aircraft, ranging from Cessna Citations to a head-of-state Lockheed L-1011 TriStar, with the Gulfstream and Challenger markets as specialties.
But, as Jerry said in the movie: “a positive anything is better than a negative nothing”. The old-timers are still going strong. Lufthansa Technik (LHT’s) Tulsa, Arizona offshoot, Bizjet International, reports that the new firm’s new pre-customised VIP cabin for both the Airbus Corporate Jets family and the Boeing BBJ series has sparked interest in the market.
The firm’s modulated narrowbody VIP cabin business started eight years ago as a co-operation between the successful “Elite” program and Airbus. Starting at $20m, with a turnaround time of six months, the new platform-adaptable concept offers a large variety of configurations and is mission-optimised with regards to cabin interior weight, seating comfort, sufficient stowage volume and the integration of features for maximum comfort and usability, such as a king-sized bed, vanity table, master bathroom with full-sized shower and a private office.
LHT can offer 96 variations of the ACJ319, whereas for a longer aircraft such as the BBJ2 and other comparable types, there are even more combinations. Walter Heerdt, senior vice president marketing and sales says: “This product is a supplement to our activities in this special completion segment. We see excellent market chances to create a similar success story to the Elite programme.” To date, the firm has delivered more than 20 aircraft under Elite, the last recently out of Bizjet International.
Elsewhere in the market, some long-established US companies have changed hands and now belong to Middle East investors, ensuring a healthy stream of aircraft for some years to come. Take Gore Design Completions of San Antonio, Texas, for example. The house officially changed its name to GDC Technics after its acquisition by Malzeer, a Saudi investment group that bought it a year ago. Malzeer owns MAZ Aviation, which is now managing the company.
The idea behind the brand change is to expand the firm’s core business beyond its VIP completions roots and provide a broad range of aircraft modification services, including engineering, supplemental type certificate development and customised modifications.
At the time of its acquisition in May 2013, Malzeer said it had three goals: to complete the projects inside the hangar; to restructure the business internally; and to redesign the image and business direction of the company. At EBACE this year the firm announced its new branding, and said it was work on its first Boeing 787 completion project, which arrived on site in February, was under way.
Scheduled to take 36 months (as the first of a brand-new composite type), the new owners have invested $20 million in the tooling and Dassault Systèmes Catia engineering software it needs. Since the 787 is a new design, previous solutions will not work. For example, one of the greatest challenges will be to attach the interior fittings to the inside of the composite fuselage.
A second 787 is scheduled to arrive in the near future. GDC Technics is also set to open satellite facilities in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, so it will be interesting to watch how the completions landscape changes shape in the not-too-distant future.
Dubai Aerospace Enterprise-owned Associated Air Center is both a designated Boeing 737 Business Jet and an Airbus Industries ACJ319 Corporate Jet completions centre. At the end of September, it shipped a VIP ACJ330 to an undisclosed customer and has a Boeing 747-8 in the hangar. In May, it appointed former chief operating officer James Colleary as president, who says that a 787 Dreamliner type is due to arrive “in the next week or so”.
He adds that there is still space for additional aircraft and the company is booked out until the middle of next year, “although we could find space at an offsite facility if we need to”, he adds, should a customer require a project.
A 2015 slot is a far cry from the story a couple of years ago when the market was saturated with widebody requests and centres were supposedly booked out until 2016. Colleary admits that the market for large aircraft is slowing, and attributes that to the fact that “the market is coming off the bubble from the 747, as well as the availability of the 787”. However, he adds that AAC has been working on several smaller projects.
Mergers and acquisitions are keeping the industry afloat by amalgamating skills required to serve customer demands. France’s Zodiac Aerospace, for example, finalised its acquisition of BBJ completion centre Greenpoint Technologies in June.
Based in Kirkland, Washington, with a subsidiary in Denton, Texas, Greenpoint employs 450 people and has annual revenues of around $150m. This augments Zodiac’s competencies in VVIP interiors, while bringing certification skills, as well as know-how in design and manufacturing of monuments, galleys, seats and lighting to the US table.
Another foreign-owned company, ST Aerospace’s VIP completions brand AERIA Luxury Interiors, secured a nose-to-tail cabin completion contract for a widebody VIP aircraft this summer. The win was hot on the heels of the San Antonio-based firm’s green aircraft completion deal for a VIP 737 BBJ in February. AERIA says that the widebody aircraft “will have a lifestyle-oriented floor plan”, including an exclusive entry way into the private suite, a comfortable master suite and a luxurious bathroom.
A state-of-the-art cabin management system is also in the pipeline to allow complete control over the custom RGB mood lights and high-definition large-format TV screens, via an integrated iPad. There is also a humidification system and sound dampening package included to enhance passenger comfort throughout the flight.
The design team will be using a 3D printer to create the cabin features. Among these is a trompe l’oeil custom ceiling. In addition to the decorative features, AERIA will deploy the 3D printer to develop mock-ups, concept modelling proofs as well as production parts. The aircraft is scheduled to arrive in AERIA’s remodelled hangar imminently, with redelivery planned in the fourth quarter of 2016. As part of the VIP programme, the firm will be developing an STC.
Thanks to innovation in both ideas and execution, there are more options than ever before – even with the hassle of certifying each component to make it airworthy. Customers are demanding more luxury, comfort and sophisticated technology, as well as dedicated workspace and amenities. Recent innovations have included a casino, complete with gaming tables, and a simulated fireplace in a Boeing 787.
And it is almost impossible to keep up with advances in multimedia technology: customers see being able to control the environment and systems in the cabin with their smartphones as almost an essential nowadays. This means temperature, lighting and windowshades, before you even get to traditional in-flight entertainment options such as volume control and movie selection.
Colleary says: “Cabin management systems are what customers really want. They especially request the ability to be able to control their environment with their smart phones.” He adds that he has also seen great strides forward in what is available for seats, with options for both covers and mechanics, such as massage and heating, as well as structure.
To quote Jerry again: “The key to this business is personal relationships,” and Indianapolis-based Comlux America has that in spades. Staffed by industry veterans, in May the Comlux Creatives team announced its “Five Senses” concept, whereby each sense is revealed during the five key phases of the VIP cabin project: definition, concept, material, detail and completion.
Essentially, the firm listens to what the client wants, helps them to choose colours and materials for the interiors, resulting in “dimensionally correct coloured layouts and 3D renderings, or even virtual animations”, which leads to the engineering phase. Lastly, the customer can “smell” the new cabin when the aircraft is finalised.
On a more practical note, and in line with industry thinking on health while travelling, the Comlux engineering department also recently developed, manufactured, certificated and integrated a lighter air conditioning system, which enhances VIP passenger comfort by decreasing the noise contribution to the interior cabin environment to a level where it cannot be heard in flight.
The exterior market is faring reasonably well, too. Associated Painters, for example, opened a second $6 million narrowbody paint hangar in Spokane, Washington. The one-bay, 2,970m2 (32,000ft2) facility accommodates aircraft up to a Boeing 757-300, and is outfitted with high-lumen, energy-efficient lighting, hybrid cross-draft/down-draft air handling and a rubber membrane roof. Associated Painters has a 30-year lease with a 20-year option for the facility.
Elsewhere, manufacturers in the business jet industry are laying the foundations for the long haul. French OEM Dassault Falcon Jet broke ground in September on an expansion and upgrade of its 92,900m2 Little Rock, Arkansas completion facility to accommodate the Falcon 5X and 8X. A 23,200m2 hangar forms part of the $60 million project, which will boost both production and completion space.
In addition, the manufacturer is refreshing its older hangars and the cabinet, upholstery and headliner shops. The project is slated for completion in early 2016, just before deliveries of the large-cabin 5X twinjet and ultra-long-range 8X trijet begin.
The investment adds to the $20 million improvement that added 9,290m2 to the site in 2008, including new paint bays and facilities to accommodate the Falcon 7X. Dassault Aviation chief executive Eric Trappier says: “This undertaking demonstrates a commitment to continue our investment in Little Rock and to ensure the facility will remain at the forefront of completion technology.”
In Melbourne, Florida, Embraer opened its newly constructed Engineering and Technology Center in September. The 6,970m2 state-of-the-art facility is the first of its kind outside Brazil, and part of Embraer’s strategy to expand its global footprint.
The new centre will conduct engineering and development activities for both product and technology development across Embraer’s business lines with the first assignments primarily focused on executive jet interiors. It will include a laboratory for the development and testing of materials and interior components. Features include 3D computer-aided design, 3D virtual reality and prototype capabilities.
Located on 5ha (13 acres) of land facing the existing Phenom 100 and Phenom 300 final assembly facility, which opened in 2009 and the Embraer Executive Jets Customer Center, opened in 2011, employment is scheduled to ramp up to a total of 200 by 2016.
So what’s in store for the industry? Colleary is confident that the market will settle and the established players continue to thrive. In terms of innovation he says, “If you can dream it up, we can build it.” That is, providing you can pay for it, of course – something the widebody guys are sincerely hoping you will be able to do.
Source: Flight International