Nobody wants to overpay for their aircraft cabin refurbishment. But there are right and wrong ways to try to maximize the budget for your next shop visit. Trevor West spoke to the industry and discovered seven key ways to make your money go further...
From the customer’s perspective, aircraft refurbishments consist of two interdependent components: The upgrades (whether required and desired) and the budget. Sliding room on both sides of the balance beam allows customers and their shops to craft sensible refurbishment solutions. But before trimming an upgrade wish list, make sure you’re making the most of the dollars you have. The top refurbishment facilities recommend following these budget-stretching tips...
1) Plan Ahead
Smart preparation is Rule #1 for maximizing your refurbishment budget. “You have to plan well in advance,” advises George Bajo, completion sales representative at Duncan Aviation’s Battle Creek, Michigan facility. Start the conversation with potential refurbishers at least a year, or – preferably – 18 months before the project starts. This permits development of a full work scope, defining the parts, work items, and labor needed, along with the costs of each.
In turn, this enables the customer and refurbishment specialists to identify budget stretching opportunities. Forward-planning also minimizes the hold-ups associated with unavailable items and long lead times, as well as requests for changes to work in progress, either of which can blow up a budget.
“I hate to hear the customer say, ‘Oh, by the way...’, during a refurbishment,” says Tim Briscoe, interiors manager at Stevens Aerospace and Defense in Greenville, South Carolina. He says this invariably precedes a change request, which “puts everybody into a tail-spin” — incurring significant overtime costs, among other downsides.
2) Set the Budget for the Design Objective
Aligning cabin refurbishment design with aircraft usage is critical to smart budgeting, too. “After you figure out the work scope, this is about defining the overall goal, or look of the design,” explains Meghan Welch, director of paint & interior sales, Elliott Aviation. As an example of the principle in practice, the owner of an aircraft on a Part 135 charter certificate might call for a simpler, less customized cabin than an equivalent Part 91 platform operated for a high net-worth individual.
The refurbishment facility, stresses Briscoe, “must understand the mission of the customer”. This includes knowing details such as whether a private owner travels with children or pets; whether a planned cabin communication system upgrade on a Part 135 jet meets the expectations of the charter market; or whether a flight department’s aircraft will also be used for executive transport or as a corporate shuttle. Budget dollars can be apportioned accordingly after these details have been established.
3) Minimize and Manage Your Downtime
Whenever possible, you should look to schedule the refurbishment in concert with a major inspection. “You can save some of the [interior] removal and reinstallation costs” off the bat, notes Debi Cunningham, vice president marketing and interior design at West Star Aviation.
That’s a budget item than can run between about $10,000 and $45,000, depending on aircraft size and interior complexity. Maintenance plans may cover a portion of those costs if such work is involved simultaneously.
Moreover, shops prefer projects that fully utilize their services while occupying their hangar space, and customers “may get a better deal” if they can combine refurbishment with other work, adds Bajo.
4) Examine Material Options
The carpeting, seat coverings, woods, sidewall treatments and other goods used in cabin refurbishments offer numerous options to maximize refurbishment dollar values through savings on materials and labor costs. For cabinetry and woodwork, you should carefully evaluate the condition of existing components. While new veneer is often the go-to solution for weathered surfaces, veneered wood can be simply stripped, painted and refinished, and new stains can change the wood color for a new look, suggests Elliot Aviation’s Welch.
“We do that a lot to save on costs.” Alternatively, veneer can be replaced with new- generation laminates. “You have to look closely to see it’s not veneer,” says Bajo, and installation “saves on labor and it’s easy to repair.” Lower sidewalls are another potential savings area.
“Everybody puts fabric on lower sidewalls to add warmth to the interior,” notes Cunningham. “But in the last few years, they’ve moved to Ultraleather.” This is a faux leather product “that almost looks like fabric, and is very easy to put in, and easy to clean,” she adds. Leather represents an underutilized source of budget savings, Cunningham says. “We have so many great leather manufacturers.
We can shop around to help save money.” Typical material costs for leather are priced at $18 to $20 per sq.ft, but “you can find a good grain for $10 to $13 per sq.ft.” Carpeting, meanwhile, can cost up to $1,600 per square yard for silk, but good quality wool is available in the $200 to $400 per square yard range. Thus, the choice needs careful consideration, as carpeting an aircraft can require 50 sq. yards of fabric.
Meanwhile, mimicking trends in the high-end automotive world, diamond stitching, personal logos and other embellishments on high-quality leather seats are popular business aircraft refurbishment items. “It really does look good,” notes Briscoe, but it adds about 10-12% to labor costs. “If it’s used for a cattle hauler, you don’t need diamond stitching,” he suggests.
5) Consider the Full Spectrum of Lighting Solutions
With fluorescent systems becoming obsolete and expensive to maintain, the growing choice and dropping prices of full-spectrum LED systems makes cabin lighting prime territory for budget- stretching. Refurbishment facilities say these upgrades can make sense, even if legacy systems are still functioning.
“If it will cost $40,000 to install, it may have cost you $20,000 last year to fix everything on the jet’s legacy lighting system,” Bajo notes. Moreover, “You’re saving not only on the cost of operation, but weight,” adds Cunningham, since the removed ballast and wiring often accounts for a significantly greater payload.
6) Economize Wisely
Don’t attempt to stretch your budget by leaving some ‘acceptable’ interior elements in their current state while refreshing others. “Once you refurbish half the cabin with an all-new interior, the other half will look worse than it did before,” warns Cunningham.
In general, you should also avoid lower-grade material as a budget solution, Briscoe suggests. Though providing short-term savings, lower-grade material wears out, and “cheapens” the look, leaving customers ultimately unhappy with the refurbishment.
“We’ll remind them that we tried to tell them,” says Briscoe, “but they never seem to remember that conversation!”
7) Get Accurate and Detailed Project Proposals
A maximized budget can quickly turn illusory if items you thought were covered in the quote aren’t included, or previously undisclosed costs and fees are added to the bill. The top refurbishment shops recommend seeking at least three quotes and checking to make sure the comparisons are “apples to apples,” as Bajo puts it.
A good refurbishment quote can run between five and seven pages, and include not only all of the previously noted items, but engineering and certification costs; testing (such as fire blocking and vertical burn) if provided; and warranties. Identifying the differences will enable you to select the best service provider and negotiate the optimum contract for your next refurbishment project.