Flight Deck Upgrade: What Determines Your Options?

Are you considering a flight panel upgrade during an upcoming MRO shop visit? You’ll need to know your options, and the factors shaping your ultimate upgrade. Ken Elliott explores these, providing different options and considerations to help your planning process…

Ken Elliott  |  02nd March 2022
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Ken Elliott
Ken Elliott

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

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Modern private jet flight deck lit up at night


Any major business aircraft cockpit upgrade or retrofit is a big deal, and for many owners who are used to their legacy avionics, it can be an overwhelming experience. To that end we begin this article with a true story…

Back in the 1990s, the Ohio-based avionics shop I worked at welcomed a Citation II/SP jet into our hangar all the way from the Philippines for a significant flight deck upgrade. The pilot had saved up all his avionics faults over a period of several years, and arrived with one operational Nav & Comm system.

In fact, he strapped a Garmin GPS to the glareshield of this eight-passenger corporate jet, and that was how he navigated his way to Columbus Ohio International Airport, via 21 hours of flying time which had required lots of oceanic flying en route from Manila.

After several weeks, a complete flight deck Electronic Flight Instrument System (EFIS) upgrade, and $100,000 worth of repairs to the existing avionics, the aircraft was towed onto the ramp and underwent several flight tests. The pilot had ample training on the new flight deck (which included a new flight management system (FMS)), and demonstrated proficiency.

Very late on the Friday evening, the aircraft was fueled and prepared for the first leg of its long return flight to the Far East. The pilot emerged to board the aircraft with three bags. The first was his personal luggage, the second his flight bag, and the third was a mystery.

“Sir, is there anything else you need from us, and would you like us to review the flight deck one more time before you depart,” we asked. “Oh no – that will not be necessary,” he replied, unzipping the mystery bag. Pulling out his trusted Garmin GPS, he proceeded to strap it back on the glareshield.

As we stood flabbergasted, he lightly tapped the GPS as if it were his favorite pet. “This GPS got me here, and this GPS will take me home,” he proudly proclaimed. “This, I can trust.”

Apart from avoiding potential sticker shock, flight departments and owners can be wary of major flight deck changes, favoring ‘the familiar’.

MROs, OEMs, and avionic shops should spend time ensuring buyers that they will support new products, providing adequate familiarity training. They should spend extra time up-front, showing intuitive features, allowing for more ‘out the window’ flying.

Key Reasons for a Flight Panel Upgrade

The most important reason for any cockpit upgrade is safety. Many flight departments have justified the business case for an avionics upgrade or retrofit using valid safety-related aspects.

The second most significant reason is a change in the operation of the aircraft, followed by obsolescence, and then mandates. 

Taking each governing reason outlined in Figure 1, we will explore how each influences the flight panel upgrade decision process and include some important considerations.

1) Safety

Many cockpit features are designed or installed with safety in mind. Here are just three of them…

Standby Instruments: Designed to back up primary information, crucially standby instruments are totally independent of standard equipment, including their power source.

Upgrading standby instruments is a common and wise move. Having digital altitude, airspeed, turn and bank, attitude, heading, vertical speed and navigation data in one instrument saves on power and panel space.

Redundancy: Achieved by duplication (and for some aircraft triplication) of primary systems, such as communication, navigation and surveillance (CNS) systems. Triplication occurs with flight management and reference gyros.

In Large Jets, it is common to upgrade with a third Flight Management System (FMS) that’s independently referenced and used as a third position source for each of the two primary systems.

Power Management: Often overlooked on pre-owned aircraft upgrades, both pilots should have equal control, and be able to access the different busses of electrical distribution, from their seats. Especially, there should be an ability to isolate the cabin from power.

While aircraft are engineered with bus priority and pilot control in mind, issues may occur with aftermarket upgrades. Ask your avionics facility to check the functionality of power bussing, with safety in mind.

This extends to bus loading and electrical load analysis, where each aircraft should have a current document that reflects all removed and installed equipment over the aircraft’s life. It is not uncommon for the electrical loads of an upgrade to be amending an out-of-date load analysis.

2) Operational Changes

Operational changes refer to moving the operation of an aircraft from one region to another, as often occurs after the transfer of ownership. Especially in today’s tight market aircraft buyers may need to compromise on a purchase and then equip to meet their individual needs, rather than wait to find the ideal aircraft.

Moreover, the buyer of a pre-owned jet may have different standards of comfort, and while the equipage of an aircraft may suit one owner, it may be insufficient for another. While the aircraft meets the new owner’s minimum equipage requirements, they may feel more comfortable, and have the budget, to upgrade to newer systems. These upgrades do not include ‘required equipage’ (covered later under ‘Mandates’).

Perhaps the aircraft’s new owner plans to change the jet’s operations from domestic US flying, to European domestic operations. There is a wealth of information for equipage requirements for different regions available to NBAA members at www.nbaa.org.

Meanwhile EASA published a December 2021 version of the 2,000-plus page ‘Easy Access Rules for Air Operations’ – Regulation (EU) No 965/2012, which can be referenced for compliance if your aircraft is based in Europe.

Moreover, owners/operators can expect to have in-country requirements, even down to placards, which must be visible in the cockpit or cabin.

Requirements are always changing, especially in Europe. Compliance dates often move, or apply differently across the region. Do not forget that even though you may be basing an aircraft in Europe, having purchased it from a US-based owner, and plan to operate domestically, you still need to get the airplane there, and certain oceanic requirements must be met.

3) Obsolescence

Recently, the most significant obsolescence issue has centered on cockpit displays, in which Cathode Ray Tube (CRT)-based monitors can no longer be supported.

An example is the Honeywell DU 875/885 replacement for the DU 870. Some third-parties are offering support for the DU870/880 and other derivatives through 2025 – but either way, aircraft that are still equipped with any CRT-based equipment should be replacing them with available ‘plug n play’, flat panel, Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) or newer, technology.

For obsolescence in general, aircraft operators should remain current with aircraft and equipment manufacturer notices, alerts and bulletins. These are the mechanisms for communicating support issues, including an inability to supply replacement parts and sub-assemblies.

Typically, sufficient advance notice is provided, as with the Honeywell displays that have been a future obsolescence notice for many years now.

4) Mandates

At times, mandated requirements have been the more significant reason for cockpit upgrades, and as with any upgrade, it is sometimes necessary to change major components or even systems to access and enable necessary features.

Also check options available during an upgrade. In some cases, it is the option that provides the feature(s) that meets the mandate.

5) Reducing Operating Costs

Many cockpit upgrades are promoted as providing a reduction in operating costs. Depending upon how you use the product, that may indeed be the case.

For longer transcontinental flights fuel-saving routes are a cost benefit, resulting in immense popularity for upgrades enabling these. 

Any equipage that supports the trajectory of an aircraft in favored high-altitude transcontinental/Oceanic routes, including FANS 1/A (+), ADS-C, Dual HF, Ku-/Ka-band Satcom, and Data 

Recording, represents a saving in operating costs. Depending upon where and how you operate, low-visibility solutions can significantly save operating costs, too. 

If adequate Runway Visual Range (RVR) is a constant issue for your take-off and landing, upgrading with EFVS should be a bonanza.

Just make sure you consider the flight department, aircraft and airport runway approvals, as well as equipage, for any low-vision operations.

6) Resale

For resale, most aircraft are tidied up and checked for mandate compliance. The tidying is usually a focus on the cabin appearance and exterior paint, and it is most likely that the mandate compliance will be current.

In some cases, however, the buyer may request an upgrade as a condition of sale, but with a tight market over the next few years there may not be so much of a bargaining opportunity. 

Savvy sellers will ensure their aircraft for sale has differentiators, helping to sway an undecided buyer toward their aircraft. If an aircraft is compliant (but not state-of-the-art) in its equipage, the seller may lose out to an aircraft that is, even though the better-equipped aircraft’s price may be higher.

Of course, not all aircraft are placed on the resale market. Some are traded against new, or for a different pre-owned model.

The better-equipped aircraft garners the higher trade-in value. From the brokers’ perspective, apart from the popularity value of different models, based on demand, it is much easier to sell a trade-in aircraft that’s likely to accumulate a sizable sum of flight hours before the next significant upgrade becomes necessary. 

It should be noted that when undergoing a pre-purchase inspection, there will be repairs and routine inspections that may reveal further requirements. 

These could involve significant software or hardware changes. With mandates or factory-recommended modifications it’s common to have nuances that only apply to specific serial numbers or models of aircraft. These arise from service bulletins, STCs, or other procedural documents that call out applicability by part number.

Make sure all your equipment part numbers have been verified as current and applicable to any work requirements that result from inspections. The ‘inspection’ may be a logbook review verifying the aircraft and its equipment is up to date.

There have been occurrences where aircraft have delivered as non-complaint because of an oversight, or, worse, an incorrect assumption of part number, modification status, or SW level for different equipment.

This, in turn, can lead to an expensive post-delivery effort in terms of access, wiring, factory upgrade of equipment, and certification.

7) Connectivity

Both voice and data communications are forms of connectivity. Internet is another. All three have uses in the cockpit, as well as in the cabin. As cockpits move away from voice and obtain clearances digitally, upgrades such as digital departure clearance and, in the future, digital en route clearance, will become popular with business aviation.

The two other significant upgrades that provide the most connectivity benefits are Satcom and Broadband Internet. Many aircraft already have some form of L-band, Ku-, or Ka-band. For them, the upgrades of interest will offer greater bandwidth and more features, while operating at higher speeds.

GoGo and Smartsky are now offering incentives to install, or upgrade their versions of Air-to-Ground (ATG) internet services, especially for equipment that is 5Gready. A feature of CPDLC FANS connectivity that should not be overlooked in pricing, is the requirement to record the digital ‘conversations’ when operating under FANS, and where a voice recorder is required.

Traditional voice recorders are not capable of recording digital data, and will need to be modified or replaced, eventually. 

8) Modernization

A catch-all for many upgrades, ‘modernization’ refers to a general approach, in this instance, to bring the aircraft up-to-date.

To capture the most benefits of modernization during an MRO or avionics shop visit, consider the factory or third-party upgrade of the primary avionic suite, such as Collins Aerospace’s ProLine IV to ProLine 21; ProLine 21 to ProLine Fusion; or aircraft type-specific Honeywell Primus Elite offerings.

Integrated Flight Deck upgrades are also available from Garmin with its G3000 and G5000, and Universal Avionics with its Insight. Major manufacturers have partnered with MROs and avionics shops to develop aircraft specific STCs that permit an upgrade of major avionic systems to legacy platforms. In some cases, there are multiple options and in others only one.

When considering modernization, take advantage of the recent advancements in Head-Up Displays (HUDs) and Enhanced Flight Vision Systems (EFVS), where developments have led to smaller HUDs and lower-cost multispectral cameras.

Garmin, Collins Aerospace and Universal Avionics (Elbit) are all offering aftermarket and new aircraft solutions. Also, Honeywell offers interesting Synthetic Vision Guidance System (SVGS) and runway awareness solutions. 

In Summary…

For each aircraft operator there is an individual set of considerations and reasons to upgrade their cockpit. Apart from minor changes, it is sensible to consult with others regarding improvements to avionic systems.

If you are not dealing directly with the aircraft manufacturer, it makes sense to work with a consultant aircraft specialist who understands the aircraft you need to upgrade. This will be in addition to the MRO or avionics shop who will price, and complete the work.

Taking a business perspective for an upgrade is also sensible. The relationship between upgrade cost and aircraft value is of importance, as well as ROI over time. Other factors, such as personal value to the operator, preparing an aircraft for resale, and avoiding potential obsolescence, are hard to quantify but relevant.

Here, we have reviewed eight reasons that govern flight deck upgrades, and there may be others. The best strategy is to stand back, consult with experts, and complete your own flight department due diligence.

Always obtain a second opinion or proposal, and do not be swayed by appearances.

Consider product support and look for issues, such as FAA Airworthiness Directives, Service Bulletins and other data that may indicate product difficulties in the field.

Safety mostly governs an upgrade, and this area cannot be compromised. Beyond safety, however, look at the broader values of the upgrade to your flight department. It may be a very different set of values than for another operator with the same aircraft model, flying to the same places as you.

Ensure you set out your reasons, budget, company vision, and specific operation requirements to reach the value points necessary for smart flight deck upgrade decisions.

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