Cabin Refurbishment: How to Set the Right Tone

Refurbishing a business aircraft offers countless options for customized personalization and to make the airplane reflect the corporate or private owner's identity. Dave Higdon seeks the experts’ advice on how to set the right tone with your next cabin refurbishment…

Dave Higdon  |  29th January 2021
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Dave Higdon
Dave Higdon

Dave Higdon was a highly respected, NBAA Gold Wing award-winning aviation journalist who covered all...

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Private jet cabin stripped of its interior during MRO

Corporate or individual identity reflected in an aircraft may come on the outside (by way of customized livery), or in the main cabin with an interior makeover. The possible variations are limited only by the aircraft’s structure, the taste of the owner/branding of the corporation, regulatory issues, and, of course, the budget available for the work. But how do you get it right...?

An ideal time to bring the aircraft up to looking its best is when other hangar-intensive work is scheduled. “When the aircraft is in for a heavy check, the removal and reinstallation (R&R) of an interior can run in the tens-of-thousands of dollars, depending on size and complexity,” notes Phil Stearns, Director of Sales and Marketing at

Stevens Aerospace and Defense Systems, adding that such work “may cost 10-20% of a complete interior refurbishment. Moreover, he notes, the ‘other work’ – for which the interior was removed – can take longer, so the refurbishment gets accomplished without necessarily increasing the downtime.

Setting the Tone – Where to Begin

Once the decision is made to proceed with a business aircraft refurbishment, though, how do you work through the dizzying array of options, setting the tone you desire with your current and future needs in mind?

To begin with, it’s worth considering that a quality interior shop will have a designer on staff. “They, and the craftsmen who build the interior components, live for the moment to work with a client and design an interior that means something to them,” Stearns says.

The ideal cabin refurbishment will account for form and functionality in equal measure (photos courtesy of Duncan Aviation)

An aircraft’s interior refurbishment project offers the owner the opportunity to break from the aircraft's old, existing colors and materials.

“From the shop’s perspective it is about listening to the client and understanding their expectations,” says Nate Klenke, Modifications Sales Manager, Duncan Aviation. “We receive a lot of unique requests which give us a glimpse into what is meaningful to the owner of the aircraft, developing a solution that is both unique to the owner and considers the years of experience of the team.”

“Most interiors are simply re-works of the original design with new fresh materials and newer up-to-date colors,” Stearns continues.

“But there are so many more things that can be done which may not move the price needle at all, while having a dramatic impact on the outcome.”

Stearns encourages owners to think outside the box, challenging the designers to create something that impresses. “Think about your favorite car, or home, or piece of furniture, and challenge the designers and craftsmen to wow you,” Stearns suggests. “This is the chance to make the cabin truly yours, so have fun and dream a little.”

“Over the years, aircraft owners have become more knowledgeable about interior and paint refurbishments,” Klenke adds. “As a result, they’re asking more relevant questions, leading to more exciting solutions.” And greater awareness from the owner is having a knock-on effect on the refurbishment industry, Klenke explains, “bringing technologies into our industry that have been around for years in other industries”.

Keep Form AND Functionality in Mind

With setting the right tone through a cabin refurbishment come a few basic additional questions that you should address. For example, the finest aesthetics will count for very little if the functionality of the cabin doesn’t work for you. What will you need your cabin to facilitate in the near- to mid-term future?

“If you’re not talking about functionality during the initial conversations about expectations for the aircraft refurbishment, you’re not ‘setting the right tone’ from the outset,” Klenke warns.

“To quote the legendary architect, Louis Sullivan, ‘form follows function’ – which is the touchstone for many architects and designers, and critical in any aircraft interior reconfiguration.”

“Do you depend on your aircraft being chartered at any time?” Stearns asks. “It is almost a requirement that chartered airplanes have Wi-Fi. Not necessarily full streaming capability, but just connectivity.”

Next, how will the system be used? Consider the number of devices that will need to run from the Wi-Fi system. “It’s not just the number of people, but the number of devices each person has – like a laptop and their phone,” Stearns highlights.

“And don’t forget about the cockpit devices and the pilots – it all adds up and will change the system you ultimately choose to fit the actual need.”

After establishing the number of devices, what will the system need to do? For example, if text is all that is required, there are some very inexpensive, quick-to-install systems, says Stearns. Such systems also “serve as a perfect back-up to any Wi-Fi system on any size plane” if the main system malfunctions.

“For larger airplanes with Cabin Management Systems that require updating or repair, you can always go the full replacement and update route,” Stearns says, but adds that many times it’s just the switching that needs to be fixed.

“There are options available that address this at a fraction of total system replacement cost.”

What first impressions do you want to convey to passengers, and, further down the road, to prospective buyers?
(photos courtesy of Stevens Aerospace)

Flexibility Pays…

When looking for a personalized interior it’s worth remembering that stitching a company logo or owner's initials into the upholstery may well impose further costs to remove when it is time to place the jet for sale.

Moreover, while using contrasting upholstery for a customized look can be fine – presenting a striking visual note without carrying the same burden as having to recover seat backs to eliminate logos or initials – in a market where first impressions are key, anything too outlandish could limit the potential buyer pool, and is essentially a matter of balance.

Though personalization of an aircraft interior or livery was considered to have an impact on marketability, “over the years this position has changed,” Klenke suggests, adding that Duncan Aviation has created ways to personalize without significantly impacting future marketability.

“Making decisions that aesthetically appeal to the owner should be much less of a concern when compared to decisions that involve the operation of the aircraft, the cost associated with putting an aircraft onto a Part 135 ticket, or not having the proper flammability testing completed,” he elaborates.

However, when the refurbishment is completed with an eventual sale in mind, the focus should be placed on broadening the appeal to a wider taste pallet. “When selling the aircraft, how it ‘presents’ really matters,” says Stearns.

First impressions go a long way with prospective buyers. If the aircraft is to be listed for sale, the owner would be well-advised to ensure it's in its best show-and-sell condition. “If the seats and carpets are outdated or worn to the point where it’s a distraction, consider getting those replaced to a neutral color or pattern – and, better yet, reintroducing that ‘new’ smell,” Stearns advises.

“You may not be able to determine whether you’ll get your investment back, but this may be the differentiator as to whether your aircraft gets looked at or not.”

Essentially, a cabin refurbishment requires foresight and planning. If you know the aircraft will be replaced before another refurbishment comes due, it’s worth factoring in the appeal for its future owner, as well as to you. Allow room in your thinking to look at the aircraft through the eyes of a buyer.

The stunning, distinctive result of a Beechcraft King Air 350 cabin refurbishment (photos courtesy of Stevens Aerospace)

Allow the Time to Plan

Whether the refurbishment is for your own enjoyment, ahead of a sale, or aboard an aircraft that you are looking to purchase, Klenke offers a universal warning, “Don’t cut yourself short!”

Cutting your planning short will provide you with fewer options and more expense, he highlights. “Well-planned refurbishment projects that provide adequate time for sampling, decision-making and acquisition are proven to be executed more efficiently and cost effectively.”

Even though you haven’t yet found that ‘perfect’ aircraft to purchase, this doesn’t mean you can’t begin the design process, he argues.

“Working with qualified completion centers with an experienced design team to establish material selections is a great way to eliminate potential material delays,” Klenke suggests. “Making these decisions early will only expedite the process and provide you with more options and flexibility to meet everyone’s expectations.”

Final Tip: Don’t do what Can’t be Changed…

It’s worth avoiding touches that are difficult to remove or change. One refurbishment shop professional offered the example of an owner who ordered a bulkhead-size image of his family members enjoying a recreational activity. Though the result was well done, charter clients voiced their preference for a large-screen monitor, leading to lost charter revenue.

When planning a cabin makeover, not only do owners face hundreds of choices over color, materials and combinations, but these need to be balanced with what is needed now, and what will be needed further down the line – two years, five years, and at the time of sale.

“Don’t try to outsmart design trends when selecting materials,” Klenke advises. “In the end, you need to like it. Trends change with the seasons so it’s important that you make selections based on your preferences with the guidance of professional designers who understand aircraft design and functionality.”

Tapping their expertise, you will maximize your chance of getting the cabin you need, while setting the optimal tone.

Nate Klenke is the Sales Manager of Modifications and Design at Duncan Aviation

Klenke has been serving Duncan Aviation customers since 1996 and has more than 30 years of design, sales and management experience in aviation, industrial design and architecture.

More information from

Phil Stearns is the Director of Sales and Marketing at Stevens Aerospace

He has been with Stevens since 2006. Phil has served as regional sales manager, general manager, and currently overseeing all sales and marketing for Maintenance, Avionics, Paint, and Interior.

More information from

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