Aircraft Refurbishment: What are the Big Value Aspects?

What areas of a cabin refurbishment hold particular value for a business jet operator? Chris Kjelgaard asks the industry's experts...

Chris Kjelgaard  |  22nd September 2020
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    Chris Kjelgaard
    Chris Kjelgaard

    Chris Kjelgaard has been an aviation journalist for more than 40 years and has written on multiple topics...

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    A Gulfstream G550 private jet cabin refurbished by Duncan Aviation

    The styling and equipment choices made by private owners when refurbishing the interiors and exteriors of their business aircraft are usually influenced strongly by personal taste. But what are the areas holding particular value to operators?

    Owners who use their aircraft only to fly themselves, their families and friends often personalize their aircraft extensively. Indeed, according to Business Aviation consultant Brian Foley, “The value of a business aircraft interior is that the owner can customize it any way they want.”

    However, operators of fleets of fractional-ownership or charter aircraft often view the primary drivers of value in an interior or exterior refurbishment differently. For those operators—especially the largest ones—it can be far more important to ensure the interiors and exteriors of every aircraft in the fleet have a consistent look and feel, in order to emphasize a unique brand positioning.

    Part 135 charter operators, particularly, want the fittings, equipment and finishes in each one of their hard-working aircraft to be very durable and easy to maintain, says George Bajo, modifications and completions manager for Duncan Aviation’s MRO facility at Battle Creek, Michigan’s W.K. Kellogg Airport.

    “Directors of maintenance [for charter fleets] like maintainability and ease of access,” so that repairs and replacement of damaged equipment can be performed quickly and without incurring significant aircraft downtime.

    To that end, such operators often choose neutral color palettes for their aircraft interiors and exteriors, choosing darker furnishings, fittings and materials so any dirty smudges can’t easily be seen and surfaces can be wiped clean quickly, notes Bajo.

    They also favor thin (but beautiful and lightweight) laminate finishes in various materials over outfitting aircraft in exotic wood stylings which may be easily damaged and very difficult and expensive to repair.

    Photo courtesy of StandardAero


    There does remain a strong degree of commonality between private owners and fleet operators in terms of the major refurbishment elements they value the most, though. Today, top of the list is making sure each aircraft is supplied with high-bandwidth connectivity.

    “There has been a big push for connectivity for the past two to three years,” says Kevin Kliethermes, director of sales, Flying Colours Corp. “Now everybody wants it faster, with more robust upgrades getting more bandwidth into the cabin.”

    “You can get unbelievably good connectivity in aircraft these days,” notes Marc Drobny, president of StandardAero’s Business Aviation Division. While Gogo’s air-to-ground internet service remains popular for owners and operators of Light and Mid-size aircraft operating largely within the confines of the North American mainland, some operators are increasingly using jets such as Challenger 650s to fly transoceanic sectors linking North and Latin America with Europe, says Kleithermes.

    That, along with the very high bandwidth levels offered by new Ka-band and Ku-band communications satellites, and the rapidly decreasing consumption cost of the bandwidth those satellites provide, is persuading some owners to refurbish their aircraft with sitcom terminals where possible.

    Photo courtesy of Duncan Aviation

    Passenger-friendly CMSs, Durable Cabin Materials

    A related refurbishment demand by many owners and operators is for their aircraft to be fitted with newer, more passenger-friendly cabin management systems to replace their original CMSs, according to Drobny. Customers often want their aircraft to have a CMS they can access and operate from their tablets and smart-phones.

    Fleet operators in particular often request a slightly less complex CMS which is easy to maintain and which their disparate groups of customers uniformly find easy to operate, Bajo notes.

    And another common refurbishment requirement, says Drobny, is for the aircraft to be fitted with a streaming server so that customers can use the higher-bandwidth connectivity now available to stream video to their personal devices.

    Regarding the aesthetics of a cabin, Duncan Aviation, StandardAero and Flying Colours are all noticing that customers want the stylings of their aircraft interiors to reflect modern design thinking.

    “There’s a lot of push around very contemporary designs, with streamlined seats which are square and not round or puffy,” Kleithermes explains, illustrating that owners of older jets increasingly want their interiors “to mimic the stylings of new aircraft”.

    While MRO companies will allow refurbishment customers to specify exactly how they want their aircraft to look and what materials they want in the cabins, they will advise customers wherever possible to choose the most durable and easy-to maintain materials—such as thick, dark-colored carpeting made entirely of aviation-grade wool.

    Natural-fiber carpets are much more fire-resistant than synthetic fibers, but while silk—the other natural fiber often used to make very high-quality business-aircraft carpeting—looks beautiful, it makes for a much less durable and harder-to-maintain aircraft carpet than wool, Bajo notes.

    Meanwhile, some owners and operators find that marble and granite laminates provide memorable and hard-wearing flooring materials for their aircraft.

    Photo courtesy of StandardAero

    Functionality over Aesthetics?

    As of this writing, the coronavirus was influencing the business aircraft refurbishment market, according to Drobny. “Right now we’re probably seeing more people coming in for functionality [upgrades] rather than for aesthetics. Up till March 2020, we were seeing those get set aside sooner as there was more interest in the aesthetic stuff.

    “It’s definitely a Covid-19 phenomenon,” he adds. Moreover, usually when aircraft are coming in for refurbishment upon resale, “We’re probably seeing more functionality [modifications] from the sellers’ perspective,” Drobny adds. 

    “Buyers are much more inclined to invest in aircraft aesthetics,” in order to personalize their aircraft or to give it a fleet-wide branded look.

    What Provides Value in Cockpit Upgrades?

    Private owners can be more reluctant to invest in non-mandatory cockpit upgrades than in cabin refurbishments, says Bajo. However, directors of maintenance for fleets are often willing to upgrade flight decks with newer displays and avionics units if those improve the reliability and maintainability of the aircraft.

    As an example, maintenance directors may well favor replacing obsolescent CRT displays with lighter-weight new LED displays, while data-link equipment is also welcomed as it often allows crews to perform quicker, more direct taxiing out to the runway and fly more direct routings.

    If a cockpit-refurbishment element can be shown to improve the pilots’ workload, for instance by increasing flight deck automation, then the decision to upgrade is often easier.

    Research and Ask Questions

    Kleithermes, Drobny and Bajo stress that it is very important for a potential buyer of a refurbished aircraft to research the aircraft in as much depth as possible to understand exactly what the requested purchase price includes.

    All three say the maintenance and refurbishment documentation and the warranties which accompany the aircraft and its equipment form additional, highly important elements of overall refurbishment value.

    All three provide their customers with extensive documentation— including photography—of all aspects of the work they perform when undertaking a refurbishment. While a customer might consider the cost of extensively documenting such work to be high, minimal documentation can be far more expensive in terms of impact on the aircraft’s resale price.

    For instance, says Kleithermes, if the buyer of an aircraft finds that the documentation accompanying it does not include the material burn-test pass certificates the FAA requires, the buyer has no choice but to have the interior of the aircraft completely refurbished again.

    The refurbishment must use materials which successfully pass the mandated burn tests, allowing the required certificates to be provided. That is a highly expensive and time-consuming process.

    Wherever possible, would-be buyers should also ask owners about the maintenance performed on their aircraft and check the accompanying maintenance documentation. This can show up potential problems such as maintenance procedures not being carried out in accordance with the aircraft’s official maintenance manual.

    When refurbishing one particular Challenger 350, StandardAero found issues arising from maintenance previously performed incorrectly, says Drobny. Asking questions can also highlight whether the supplemental type certificate used to perform a prior modification was fully suitable for that aircraft.

    Warranties as a Value Element

    The warranties provided for the work and replacement equipment involved in a business aircraft refurbishment also represent a significant value element within the overall package. Reputable refurbishment providers offer solid warranties guaranteeing their work and equipment for anywhere from one to three years.

    Some providers will allow their warranties to transfer with the aircraft if it is resold within the period of coverage. Others may be willing to consider doing so on a case-by-case basis.

    Good providers will also allow the customer flexibility in terms of where any new work required under the warranty is performed, if the customer’s aircraft is geographically remote from the original provider’s facilities.

    High-quality workmanship, by-the-book procedures and ample documentation together have a significant positive effect on the resale value of a refurbished aircraft. Not only will a well-turned-out aircraft with good records often sell much more quickly than an aircraft which hasn’t been looked after very well, but its resale value is also likely to be much higher.

    “It's estimated that a pristine interior can enhance value by upwards of 20%, whereas a ratty interior could deduct by 20%,” Foley concludes.

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