With today’s cabin avionics, virtually all things are possible to those who have the patience and funds, notes Donald Ridge. But in customizing the cabin, an aircraft owner needs to consider ongoing maintainability...
Throughout my aviation career, I’ve been involved in countless aircraft transactions that typically result in some kind of cabin refurbishment by the new owner. There are always a few squawks that may need to be fixed before taking a first flight in the newly acquired airplane - but then, most new owners want to add something to reflect their own personality.
Other than a flashy new paint job, I can think of no better way to customize this new purchase than by designing a new interior that includes some of the latest high-tech cabin electronics that are available today.
There are, of course, countless factors to consider when narrowing the cabin equipment options.
As I think about all the new aircraft owners I’ve known and their need to make the aircraft their own, the term ‘custom’ becomes an important word - especially in relation to the aircraft cabin, because that is where they will be spending their time travelling.
Distinctive cabin avionics, lighting and entertainment systems - regardless of the aircraft type – can all be custom-designed to exceed customer expectations. Just keep in mind that any customization will also require plenty of patience and perseverance in seeing the job through to the end.
Where to Begin?
Considerations begin with finding a qualified facility that comes with seasoned avionics professionals. Most facilities qualified to maintain your particular aircraft type will typically have a good avionics department that is capable of doing the job, but it is always good to do research to find the most-qualified shop for your aircraft’s customized installation.
Whenever there is a need to integrate equipment into the aircraft’s electrical system, the FAA requires a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC). The chosen facility will likely have available a few existing FAA STCs for your aircraft that can implement the installation faster than certifying a unique one-of-a-kind design.
As we have already stated, however, many new aircraft owners want something special, or may even want to try and recreate their home theater experience in their new cabin. This can all be achieved - but like many things there are always trade-offs to make it happen, and it usually involves a significant investment of time and money.
A Study in Patience
I was part of a team tasked with refurbishing a Gulfstream GIV interior for a well-known client. The cabin entertainment system that the owner wanted included the latest, state-of-the-art high-definition audio and video systems.
The challenge began when the audio and video components, built by different manufacturers, wouldn’t synchronize even though we had been told they would work together. The systems were operating on separate channels, and there was so much interference that - in order to get the system to work - we finally had to install additional computers. We were ultimately able to marry the two and create a customized software interface.
All of the extra work was followed by a lengthy FAA approval processes that caused more than a month’s delay in the delivery of the aircraft. The customer was frustrated and unhappy, until he saw and experienced the final product. They got their customized movie theater system (that also required the pilots to use the latest noise canceling headphones to block out the surround-sound and fly without distraction).
This unique solution is still working great today, but the touch screen hardware selected has already become obsolete because of the discontinuation of the product line. So even with the latest and greatest custom system, in a few short years, systems can become obsolete and create challenges when a problem arises and replacements are needed.
Maintainability is a key factor for the longevity of any customized installation, and it can depend on future parts availability like the touch screens just mentioned, as well as the quality of the installation itself. Keeping these systems working and up-to-date with current technology can also affect the aircraft’s value when you look to sell down the road.
Many cabins we see today at JSSI have legacy systems that are obsolete and cannot be repaired, so when something breaks, the entire system needs replacing. There are basic system replacements on the market that only require space for a couple of black boxes and a few feet of extra wire. Such simple enhancements can be combined with an LED lighting upgrade to freshen up any cabin.
If it were up to me, I would always go with a cabin upgrade solution that already has an STC for my airplane type.
It simply makes life easier and is usually a smart economic decision. But the bottom line is that almost anything is possible when customizing cabin avionics of an airplane today. Whether it is worth the time and tenacity it takes to complete the task is something that only the owner of the aircraft can decide. As always, weigh the costs with the benefits!