What are currently the popular upgrades and modifications for business aircraft, and why? Dave Higdon provides insights into today’s upgrade and retrofit markets…
General Aviation operators spent $1.3bn in 2017 on avionics upgrades and retrofits alone. Beyond avionics, upgrades to interiors, exteriors, powerplants and cabin systems will have added billions more to the money spent on upgrades.
There’s no question that modifications, upgrades and refurbishments remain the most-popular path to enjoying the latest and greatest new features in a business aircraft for many owners. Depending on the upgrades, the owner also boosts the residual value of the aircraft.
Yet the contacts and sources tapped for this article wave off any ideas of buying a ‘project’ to fix and sell on at profit. “If you're already in the business of buying and selling aircraft – if you have good contacts for each kind of work – you might make some money,” explained a Midwest broker with decades of experience.
“This has been my trade for a long time and the days of ‘flipping’ airplanes for fun and profit ended several years ago.
"If you’re buying a used aircraft today, it’s best to buy a ‘keeper’ and, if it has a few needs, you should negotiate accordingly and find a vendor to do what's needed for you to keep and fly the airplane yourself.”
Thus, we examine the leading upgrades in 2018, weighing their benefits, their costs and their impact on the aircraft's residual value.
#1: In-Flight Connectivity
In-flight connectivity (IFC) hardware topped the list of ‘Most Sought-After Upgrades’ currently. This, in part, is due to the rapid expansion of ever-faster, progressively-smaller options available to operators, along with a concomitant gain in aircraft becoming eligible for an upgrade.
“The newer options tend to target Light jets and Turboprops, at equipment prices and usage fees that make them increasingly viable options,” explained an Eastern Seaboard avionics-shop foreman. Nevertheless, he noted, the growth in speed and expansion of bandwidth for larger aircraft systems helps the placement of this upgrade type by encouraging owners of larger jets to upgrade their existing systems.
“Any initial hesitation borne of usage-fees continues to wane as lower-cost options arrive with upgrades for older systems expanding how many users the system can host – and how fast those systems have become,” the foreman explained.
It certainly helps that so many of these newer systems come with lower access costs and the ability to simultaneously connect ever-more users in-flight.
#2: Glass Cockpit Upgrades
Just behind in-flight connectivity comes glass-cockpit upgrades, with ADS-B an element in the upgraded panel. ADS-B upgrades appear to serve as encouragement to many operators choosing to invest in full-panel makeovers, thereby making older business aircraft viable for years to come.
With upgrade options available through Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) for so many business jet and turboprop aircraft, owners increasingly understand the value of installing a state-of-the-art cockpit and keeping the existing aircraft. Aspen Avionics, Avidyne, BendixKing (and parent company Honeywell), Garmin, Rockwell Collins: all offer approved digital flight deck systems STC’d for multiple installations.
ADS-B falls into this bracket, but suffers from a lack of standalone options for many older business aircraft. So ADS-B is often a component of a full-panel upgrade, which remains popular primarily for that reason.
What's seldom missed is how much weight a panel upgrade typically removes from an older business aircraft – from just over 100lbs in some packages to well over 200lbs for others.
Enhanced Vision System (as fitted aboard the Gulfstream G450)
#3: Enhanced/Synthetic Vision Systems
Thanks to continuing advances in sensor technology, Enhanced Vision Systems (EVS) are available on a growing list of business aircraft; some as a standard feature of the flight deck system, and others retrofitted. All bring a new level of safety and utility to flying.
EVS employ a heat-sensing camera system to detect and display images at night, in real time, on Primary Flight Displays (PFDs), dedicated screens and even Head-Up Display systems (HUDs). The EVS not only sees what's present at any given moment, it can also show that something was there a short time before since the sensor picks up residual heat from that item.
Synthetic Vision Systems (SVS) are running close behind EVS, partly because for many panels the upgrade is as simple as installing software into the avionics package. SVS lacks the real-time benefit of EVS in that the database used to construct a computer-generated image of terrain, roads, rivers and vegetation based on GPS position, speed and direction data, comes from scans performed in the past.
Growing in popularity, but trailing in availability, is a hybrid system combining EVS and SVS into a single image. But EVS, in particular, is far more than a gadget for pilots to view when flying in Instrument Meteorological Conditions. EVS is a proven tool for penetrating many forms of vision obstructions.
One element in particular sticks out for its utility: The reduced minima available for some instrument approaches, available to some aircraft. Long coveted by EVS creators and fans, these lower approach altitudes help expand the conditions under which a pilot can still see – via EVS – and legally continue to land.
Galley upgrades are proving popular
#4: Galley Upgrades
A galley upgrade may be nothing more than a snack center on smaller jets, to a fully-functional galley on large BusinessLiners. Typically dealt with during an interior makeover, traditionally the changes made to a galley stopped at the cosmetic level.
Thanks to new systems, such as in-flight ovens and espresso machines, opportunities are increasing to bring more variety to the galley. The utility gain comes from whatever extra the owner wants in the galley. The residual value is dependent on the scope of the aircraft's reach.
Larger aircraft incorporating a broad spectrum of new features can enjoy increased market appeal, whereas smaller aircraft gaining only marginal improvements in capabilities may see little or no gain.
#5: Engine Upgrades
Upgrades to the powerplants appeal most to the flight crew, maintenance technicians, and the accountant who sees the operating cost improvements of these modifications. While popular in the abstract, their dependence on development of STCs tends to limit their spectrum of options.
Where available, powerplant upgrades prove particularly popular among operators and owners flying aircraft with engines near their overhaul time. Older engines can be so expensive to overhaul that buying new engines available under an STC can be less expensive – while delivering greater performance and lower fuel consumption.
Business Aircraft engine upgrades can add great performance enhancements to your aircraft
The Attraction of Upgrades
Although we’ve only covered the current top five in upgrades, and while other types of upgrades will ebb and flow in popularity, the concept of reducing operating costs and/or improving efficiency will never go completely out of style. The Business Aviation community offers no shortage of options for those seeking to make the most of the aircraft they’re flying.