How to Future-proof Your Jet's Avionics

Avionics are a key focus for business jet operators, with significant implications for safety and performance. Today’s increasingly integrated systems offer a strong value proposition, according to industry experts. Gerrard Cowan explores…

Gerrard Cowan  |  20th August 2021
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Gerrard Cowan

Gerrard Cowan is a freelance journalist who focuses on aerospace, defense and finance. He can be found...

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Business jet avionics have always been focused on two main goals, according to Thomas Chatfield, CEO of MRO specialist Camber Aviation: enhancing safety and increasing capabilities. From a human factors perspective, these goals must also reduce pilot workload, he says.

Chatfield points to the work of several major aircraft manufacturers in incorporating fly-by-wire flight controls and large touchscreen displays.

Additionally, head-up displays receive sensor data to increase situational awareness and boost safety in various areas. Chatfield highlights the evolution of head-up guidance (HUG) in particular, which can significantly improve approaches and landings.

Recent developments have increased HUG capabilities while lowering costs, making this upgrade affordable on even Mid-size and Light Jets, Chatfield says.

“If a business jet owner decides to make a single investment into their aircraft flight deck to increase safety while reducing workload, then a Head-Up Guidance would be my first recommendation.”

Technology has been moving towards single-supplier, fully integrated flight deck avionics systems, Chatfield says. Rather than depending on individual systems with their own displays or representative symbologies, the data is being combined or fused “onto displays that are simpler to read and understand; that are more intuitive and less prone to misinterpretation than the last generation of flight decks”.

Michael Kussatz, East Coast Regional Avionics Sales Manager for Duncan Aviation, says his company is seeing more interest in upgrading to the FAA’s Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS), a highly accurate navigation system that improves upon GPS service and allows for Localizer Performance with Vertical guidance (LPV) approaches.

These increasingly common approaches allow for greater flexibility in flight crews, though Kussatz notes that some of the required upgrades can be “fairly expensive compared to the value of the aircraft”.

Bill Forbes, Director of Avionics Sales for Elliott Aviation, pointed to a continued move towards the integration of mobile devices, with some cockpit systems integrating flight plans over Bluetooth, as well as ADS-B traffic and weather.

However, the most significant technological trend shaping business jet avionics is obsolescence, he says, with “a considerable proportion of airplanes in operation with ageing avionics systems”. While many of these have a path to upgrade their avionics, some do not, and must rely on costly exchanges, repairs or used equipment.

A mechanic at Elliott Aviation working of a flight panel retrofit

The Initial Investment is the Largest Expense

For cockpit avionics, the initial investment in the new equipment is the largest expense, Forbes notes. All of the existing avionics components and wiring are removed in many retrofits, with new wire harnesses installed, making the retrofit “truly a replacement of the entire avionics system”.

The savings in repairs, and the cost of maintenance contracts will pay for a large percentage of the upgrade costs over a three- to five-year period, Forbes says, while Elliott Aviation has seen major avionics retrofits hold up to 80% of their value on the resale market.

There are other benefits that can’t be valued in monetary terms, however, namely “With the new technology advancements, the amount of information that is displayed and the features in the new equipment increase the pilot’s situational awareness and make flying that much safer,” Forbes explains.

Some retrofits can actually cost less than maintaining a legacy avionics system, Forbes notes; as systems age, supply for replacement parts becomes scarcer, driving up the cost. “If you are operating a legacy avionics system, it would be best to keep a spare set of used equipment on hand, helping avoid delays and potentially higher future prices of ageing avionics.”

But upgrading avionics will not always guarantee resale value, Chatfield says. It is important that mandated upgrades are approved by both the FAA and EASA, as this will ensure that in the event of a sale, the aircraft can easily move to another registration without further modification.

It is also important that upgrades are covered by an OEM Service Bulletin or through an approved Supplemental Type Certificate (STC), “and that the equipment supplier is well-known, and the installer reputable”.

There are major costs associated with installing systems that have not yet been approved for a particular aircraft, Chatfield warns. Being the first invariably requires longer downtime and cost than purchasing an already approved STC.

It could be beneficial in other respects, he notes. “If an owner wants to be the first with a particular upgrade, then they should come to an agreement with the installer that subsequent sales of the STC will result in a royalty payment to the owner.”

A Duncan Aviation technician installs a flight panel retrofitThink Ahead of the Curve

The cost of avionics upgrades can be minimized through a knowledgeable flight department that understands future avionics requirements and plans for the future. 

“It is incredibly expensive to simply meet new avionics requirements one-at-a-time, when they’re required by regulatory authorities,” Chatfield says.

“Instead, professionals stay abreast of new and upcoming avionics mandates, as well as new requirements for specific airports/approaches that they plan to fly into.”

By understanding your upcoming requirements, it is also possible to bundle different types of work together, upgrading all of the affected systems in one maintenance input, Chatfield says. 

This requires good planning and research, “but will invariably result in a shorter downtime, and lower costs”.

Jens Hennig, Vice President of Operations at the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), agrees that operators should look to bundle upgrades together. 

For example, if they are opening up their aircraft to meet a government mandate in an area like ADS-B, they could take the opportunity to also install additional safety features.

Operators should consider the need to future-proof the aircraft; when they decide to make a basic investment, they should perhaps “make the bigger investments so you don’t have to do it again in three to five years,” Hennig suggests.

“Pause before you take that step of taking it out of service to make sure that you do the full [upgrade],” Chatfield says, “so that next time you do this, it’s a decade in the future.”

Potential sources of information include OEM forums, the operator’s contracted MRO shop, and industry bodies like the Aircraft Electronics Association (AEA), GAMA, the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) or European Business Aviation Association (EBAA). 

While upgrades are expensive, “it really depends on what your mission is in determining if the costs are justified”, says Kussatz. It is also becoming harder to support older avionics systems, he says. “And many operators choose to upgrade just so they don’t miss trips because of unplanned and costly repairs”.

Collins Aerospace flight deck retrofitted in a private jet

Upgrades are Becoming More Complex

Operators should understand that avionics upgrades are becoming more complex, depending on the aircraft’s existing systems, its age, and how much is being upgraded, Kussatz says.

The systems have become less and less about wiring and more about considerations like software and system configurations. If operators believe an MRO’s quote is too expensive, they should try to learn more about the technicians involved, to establish their expertise in the area, Kussatz suggests.

“When getting quotes from different MROs, I think it's a good idea to seek out other operators who have used each MRO, and find out why they like the MRO,” he adds. “Look for people who love them, and find out why they love them so much.”

Collins Aerospace is a leading manufacturer of business jet avionics. According to Charles Wade, Director of Marketing for Business and Regional Avionics, operators should look at the value proposition of an upgrade from several different angles.

For many years, there has been a view that an upgrade investment should consume no more than 10-15% of hull value, Wade says. However, operators should rethink this approach, “because the value proposition of some of these technologies exceeds that number”.

Wade said the impact could also be felt in terms of time. For example, an upgrade could significantly increase interest in the aircraft on the resale market, meaning it could be sold in three months rather than a year, for example.

Collins manufactures a wide range of avionics upgrades available for the Pro Line 21 and the Pro Line Fusion suites. Wade says the company has seen particularly strong recent interest across multiple platforms in the Multi-Scan Weather Radar and its Future Airspace Navigation System (FANS) 1/A upgrade.

If operators are considering a modernization package, they must “do their homework”, Wade adds. When talking to Pro Line operators, the company recommends maintaining a baseline and keeping it up to date, potentially making larger-scale upgrades easier to implement in the future.

“Making those incremental investments today is really important, because there are more changes to come.”

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