Cabin Electronics: How to Upgrade Logically

With so many variables to consider, where and how should you start to plan the upgrade of your cabin electronics? Ken Elliott highlights a method that can be applied to any size of upgrade on any aircraft.

Ken Elliott  |  24th May 2021
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Ken Elliott

Ken Elliott is a veteran with 52 years of aviation experience, focussed on avionics in General and Business...

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Owing to the fact that a business jet’s cabin must function as an integrated whole, it is essential that any approach to upgrading your cabin’s avionics constantly revisits the fundamental need. Therefore, you should begin the entire process by establishing what the need is.

Understanding the need can become complex very quickly, so start by asking what drove you to consider a cabin electronics modification or upgrade in the first place. Some examples may be:

  • Repair cannot be accomplished (owing to obsolescence of equipment);
  • Current owner or operator request;
  • Change of aircraft use;
  • Change of ownership;
  • New, improved versions of electronics are available on the market.

Focus on the specific need and address it as a requirement before looking at what else you could consider, where it makes sense, in terms of the constraints and planning drivers detailed below.

The Constraints of a Cabin Electronics Upgrade

There are obvious initial constraints to any upgrade, so let’s begin with those.

Budget: There are options of cabin electronics to suit most budgets, but what will truly help to get maximum benefit from your budget is planning.

  • Can you accomplish the upgrade during other maintenance or repairs?
  • Do you need to access areas for cabin electronics that you would also need for other work?
  • Do you need specific headliner access to mount a new antenna on top of the fuselage (for example)?
  • Can you bundle any of the electronics and associated materials to save on expense?

Downtime: As with budget, plan the downtime around other work, access, and upgrade facility time slots. Be prepared for downtime to overrun. Any major project will have its unforeseen issues. Do not schedule any trips until a few days after the projected completion date.

Availability: Ensure any products selected for an upgrade will be available, in the version you need, well before the planned date of system testing. Cabin electronics changes usually employ some material change, such as matching carpet for close-outs, wood, or other trim material for new switch panels, or mounting for new displays. Surprisingly, due to availability, material and burn testing can create delays.

Certification: Make sure that whatever you intend to accomplish is certifiable. Planning should include a Certification Engineering study before an upgrade contract is signed. Many delays are caused by certification requirements.

Airplane mechanics install electronics into a private jet cabin

The Planning Drivers of a Cabin Electronics Upgrade

Once you have dealt with the constraints, begin to plan around the drivers that will impact and direct your decisions. These include:

Aircraft Retention: What is the end-goal with the aircraft, both short- and long-term? If you intend to trade the aircraft within the next couple of years, you may need to be more budget-conscious, thinking also about equipping to sell.

On the other hand, if you are planning to operate the same aircraft for the longer-term, you can take a more visionary posture and consider long-term use of the cabin electronics.

Aircraft Operations: How do you intend to utilize the aircraft? Apart from the category of operation (Part 135, Part 91K (Fractional) or Part 91), utilization includes typical flight duration. The latter tells you how many hours, on average, passengers will occupy the cabin.

By knowing that, and whether flights are for charter, corporate or personal use, it will be easier to plan cabin equipage. Furthermore, if flights are domestic (United States), they can operate with an Air-To-Ground (ATG) internet and phone system, whereas if you plan to fly transoceanic routes, you will also need a Satcom for the same purpose.

Cabin Utilization: While equipping the cabin for the type of operation you intend to conduct, consider how passenger activity will play out within the cabin itself. Who sits where, and what do they intend to be doing on the ground and in the air?

Will the same passengers be flying regularly, or will they differ each time? Is the aircraft owner frequently on-board?

Make an early determination regarding the use of carry-on devices (iPhones, iPads and Laptops). Many upgrades today rely on these to connect to the internet while acting as a source for music and video content.

Security: Check for corporate policy around internet security. For these reasons, some flight departments will not permit the use of internet on board their aircraft. Make sure you a) know the policy, b) know who will be permitted to use personal devices, and c) what those devices may be?

Appearance: Does the planned cabin electronics upgrade enhance the cabin appearance? The ambience of the aircraft cabin is so important to some executives and their influential partners.

The passenger experience should be understated elegance, with calm and comfortable surroundings. There should be an air of neutrality about everything, especially if there is a plan to trade the aircraft anytime soon.

For cabin electronics, this refers to the way interactive controls and display mounting surrounds will coordinate with the overall cabin style. With an increasing use of carry-on personal electronic devices, there is less to consider regarding appearance today than a few years ago.

Who’s Working on the Aircraft? Do you always take your aircraft to the OEM, or are you open to having your cabin altered by a third party? The answer will help direct you in terms of what the factory offers versus what third party MRO providers offer.

Sometimes OEMs have pre-owned aircraft upgrade programs, where several options will offer different capabilities.

Third-party companies (Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul facilities), and others, may offer more latitude in choice or custom, one-off integrations. Whoever you decide to go with, make sure they are capable and approved to both maintain and release the aircraft. You can bet there will be a necessary repair or service during the visit.

Obsolescence: Are you finding it increasingly difficult to complete repairs on existing cabin systems? Is the repair facility warning you about the difficulty of maintaining your entertainment electronics? These are early indications of obsolescence, and the headaches that will bring.

Usually, warning signs will be sensed, and it is wise to act early by planning a system replacement.

The Upgrade Approach

Understanding the constraints and having considered the planning drivers, you can begin to tackle a systematic approach toward an upgrade. One approach is to grasp the big picture by understanding how an aircraft’s cabin is typically divided into zones (see Figure 1).

FIGURE 1: A Typical Business Jet Cabin Layout

A typical business jet's cabin layout and zones

Each cabin zone can be laid out differently, and, in the instance of forward and aft cabin (seating), each will have its own layout to accommodate different seating needs.

Somewhere will be an executive seat for the CEO, or the most senior passenger. When considering a business jet’s cabin electronics, you should start from there. Having broken out your aircraft cabin into zones, each with its own configuration, you can place the electronic requirements against each seat, attendant, galley, and lavatory position. Figure 2 (below) provides an example, and for clarification:

  1. The vestibule can be separate to the galley on larger jets.
  2. The galley ‘switch panel’ refers to an attendant’s panel, while ‘control’ refers to galley controls.
  3. Forward & aft cabin passenger ‘panels’ refers to individual seat ‘environment and entertainment control’ panels.

Once the zone and equipment layout are completed, include any interior changes. Replacement or modifications to the existing interior may have an impact on the cabin electronics. Revisit the original need and preliminary cabin electronics upgrade plan, to ensure everything has been addressed.

FIGURE 2: A Typical Business Jet's Cabin Electronics Layout

A typical business jet's cabin electronics layout

From here may be a good place to set the priorities.

Cabin Electronics Priorities

Setting priorities can be overwhelming because you need to consider the constraints, planning factors, approach to an upgrade, and then functionality.

The functionality piece is crucial, because you want everything to play together and not have entertainment or cabin environmental inconsistencies. Examples of inconsistency will be:

  1. Conflict in who controls what.
  2. The ergonomic placement of switch panels and other controls.
  3. New cabin electronics does not play well with the existing.

The executive seat position will have most control, especially over cabin environment, such as temperature. Some of the control will share with the attendant and there will be a smaller group control, often by the divan.  There are different ways you can define priorities, but one way is to map them out. Table A shows one example. 

TABLE A: Checklist for Prioritizing Cabin Electronics in Your Bizjet's Cabin

Checklist for prioritizing cabin electronics in your bizjet

Here the primary electronics groups are listed. The groups may then be mapped out to the different ‘Zones’, including remote equipment, with individual item placement listed under ‘Specifics’. 

From there priorities can be assigned, based on constraints and factors of planning, such as intended aircraft operations. Remote equipment can be located either within the zones, including behind interior or inside closets, or under the cabin floor.

An Integrated Cabin

Integrating the cabin relies on ‘system to system’ coordination. Some of the integrated Cabin Management Systems (CMS) by Collins Aviation, Honeywell and Lufthansa, for example, accommodate many different options and are frequently developed in harmony with the aircraft manufacturer’s overall cabin goals.

Not all aircraft are built that way, and equally designs, features, and popular capabilities become outdated or out-of-style.

Despite several aircraft having integrated cabins, many others have been adding or upgrading their internet capability over the last few years. Because the upgrade may use different manufactured equipment, this topic is worth a specific mention.

When the aircraft is to be used domestically (speaking from a US point-of-view), jet connectivity can be acquired using Gogo Business Aviation, or SmartSky Networks that utilize Air-to-Ground (ATG) technology.

For oceanic and remote-area use, Collins and Honeywell operate their own Ku- and Ka-band sitcom systems. Viasat is another popular satcom contender, deploying its own satellites. All three companies provide internet, phone and video streaming.

Several companies offer satcom via Iridium, but unlike Inmarsat or Viasat satellites, Iridium is a low-earthorbit, low data-capacity and less-costly solution. Collins and Honeywell also act as service providers, along with the popular Satcom Direct, allowing connection with the Inmarsat and Iridium satellites, along with many system features.

For creative, less-integrated cabin upgrades, and especially where you wish to retain some existing equipment, there are several options. 

Alto, for example, allows for replacement of individual components and sub-assemblies via plug-and-play devices, saving effort, downtime and cost, yet providing reliability with newer technology and additional features.

When working with mixed equipment, and plug and play solutions, make sure the engineering and certification planning is thorough. Because of variations in part numbers, connectivity and software programming, there are potential integration pitfalls.

Similar plug and play solutions are also available for aircraft cabin lighting systems, one popular business jet vendor being Aircraft Lighting International (ALI). Here, existing lighting is replaced with LED creating a brighter environment, and even enhancing intensity and color, with a more reliable and longer lasting solution.

Design for Growth and Resale

Whatever you decide when upgrading the cabin electronics, always consider open-ended architecture that permits future growth, avoids obsolescence or becoming outdated, and will allow for additional features down the road.

For resale, any upgrade should be easy to maintain, easy to operate, and ergonomically sensible. Unique and novel features, materials, colors and configurations may not appeal to the broader market, or be suitable for charter and fractional operations.

As cabins become more like the home or office environment and there is less reticence about broadcasting Bluetooth and Wi-Fi around the aircraft, there will be an increasing reliance on personal walk on devices, providing personal music and stored video content.

Also, security is an understandable concern, and company firewalls need to be respected. If the aircraft is for any kind of corporate use, involve the IT specialist and begin dialogue about access and security. Bring that person into the cabin electronics discussion early on.

This article prescribes just one approach to upgrading cabin avionics. Whichever way you proceed, always keep overall cabin functionality and future aircraft resale in mind.

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