Sustainable Refurbs: Balancing Quality and Budget

How is sustainability impacting business aircraft cabin refurbishments, and how competitive are the sustainable alternatives to the traditional refurbishment methods and materials in terms of quality and cost? Gerrard Cowan asks the experts...

Gerrard Cowan  |  22nd March 2022
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    Gerrard Cowan
    Gerrard Cowan

    Gerrard Cowan is a freelance journalist who focuses on aerospace and finance. In addition to his regular...

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    Newly refurbished private jet cabin

    With an increasing global focus on climate change and other environmental concerns, sustainability is a growing topic in aviation. But it stretches beyond fuel, even impacting decisions and material selections for cabin completions and refurbishments.

    What exactly does this mean for business jet operators looking to upgrade the interior of their aircraft, and how can sustainability be balanced with budgetary and quality demands?

    Before answering that, it’s important to see sustainability in a broader context, says Tom Chatfield, CEO of Camber Aviation Management, a Canadian provider of aircraft completion and refurbishment advisory services. “The first focus should be ‘reuse’”, he explains, rather than necessarily buying new equipment.

    For example, operators should aim wherever possible to reuse their existing seats. Though they may wish to restyle the seats, “there’s no reason to take perfectly good seat frames and toss them in the bin”.

    This also applies to other structural components, though it may be possible to make some changes to the layout. The refurbished seats and components can be integrated into the refreshed cabin or into the new layout. 

    It’s always worth considering the benefits of reducing the weight of the interior when it comes to a refurbishment. While the aircraft may be configured for a specific number of passengers, if you seldom fill the seats consider a redesign to increase comfort levels aboard the jet. The lower overall cabin weight that results would lead to a lower fuel burn, lowering the carbon footprint (and operating costs) of the jet.

    Sustainable Cabin Materials & Techniques 

    When new materials are necessary, there is a range of options that do not have such a heavy impact on the environment as some of the ‘traditional’ options. Synthetic leathers and natural, plant- based leathers (referred to as ‘vegan’ leather) are examples.

    “These look fantastic, but don’t have such a heavy impact on the environment” as real leather, Chatfield explains, adding there is a range of fabric options available that fulfil flammability requirements, have a very nice feel, and aren’t such a significant burden on the environment. 


    Re-veneering is also a popular option, and there are several ways to do this in a more sustainable way, according to Chatfield. “Obviously if you’re using exotic and rare woods, that makes a pretty harsh impact on the environment, and you have a fair amount of wastage from that.”

    For environmentally conscious jet operators, “there’s some really interesting new veneers that are basically…thin slices glued together. They look phenomenal, but they don’t have as big an impact [on the environment].” 

    Duncan Aviation provides a full range of options in cabinetry, including re-veneering and vinyl wraps. Angie Coleman, a Completion and Modifications Sales Representative at the company, points to hydrographics as an exciting, sustainable cabin refurbishment solution. 

    Hydrographics applies custom designs through a water transfer. It can be applied to everything from metal, to glass, wood (including existing veneered surfaces), and more. According to Duncan Aviation, this allows the user to replicate a variety of textures and designs in an interior while also providing a lightweight, durable finish, all at a relatively low price. 

    Many times, the genuine products also create challenges with thickness and lack of flexibility, which add to the complexity during the construction and application phases of the refurbishment, Duncan Aviation highlights. Hydrographics nearly eliminates the need for special edge treatments and will cover the most complex shapes. 

    “From a sustainability perspective, such an option can reduce the waste associated with reveneering,” Coleman highlights. Re-veneering is very luxurious, she adds, but is also expensive, “because you’re talking about a very natural product coming from trees”. 

    Vinyl wraps and hydrographic dipping “can still give you that very similar, luxurious look, without having to use all new material, because you’re basically taking the existing cabinet and dipping or wrapping it”, she explains.

    Industry Takes Responsibility 

    According to Meghan Welch, Elliott Aviation’s Director of Paint and Interior Sales, though sustainability has not necessarily been specifically requested by customers when it comes to interior and paint refurbishments, “we try to keep this as a focal point with refurbishments.

    “For example, we encourage customers to utilize and modify existing cabinetry to maximize the space and functionality within to meet their demands and needs in flight, rather than building new cabinets.”

    Elliott Aviation provides a range of aircraft servicing and sales support, including numerous cabinet refurbishment options. Even without specific customer requests the company provides hydrogen peroxide-based paint strippers to boost sustainability in its services, Welch reveals.

    “Sustainability is something that our industry is focused on, and if there are solutions, I definitely know we encourage these options,” she adds.

    Moreover, equipment manufacturers within the industry are incorporating sustainability into the way they work. For example, Alto Aviation — a producer of cabin management systems and audio equipment for cabins — is now engineering its new electronic products with lead-free solder, according to Steve Hatley, Alto’s Director of Engineering.

    “That’s an example of something we’re doing from a design standpoint, to be a little more proactive in our approach,” he adds. Indeed, customers are “becoming more active in getting us to ensure that our suppliers are also co-operating in sustainability”, says Dave Gustafson, Alto Aviation’s Operations and Quality Manager.

    The company is using a new evaporator system that reduces the amount of wastewater it produces in its production processes, down from 3,600 gallons to 55 gallons of solid waste. Alto also recycles 100% of the metal it uses, among other approaches. “There’s all sorts of opportunities to look beyond the old business practices,” Gustafson highlights.

    In Summary...

    When looking to build sustainability into a cabin refurbishment, “business jet operators should first make sure they give themselves time to do it,” Chatfield says. MRO centers are today extremely busy and backed-up.

    It’s important to sit down with a professional and decide upon the approach you want to take, from the earliest possible point, and preferably in-person, aboard the aircraft. This will provide time to find, engineer, and source the right solutions.

    “Having a good discussion with an objective adviser can open up the possibilities of what is even possible,” he adds. “Then, getting the right designer early in the process means you can conceptualize it into an image, and a layout, and work out the cost.

    “Relatively quickly, you get into a position of being able to see what the end product would be,” he concludes. As demonstrated above, sustainable solutions can actually save you money without compromising on the look and feel of your immediate cabin environment, all while enabling you to play your part in protecting the wider environment of planet Earth. Plenty of food for thought.

    More information from:
    Alto Aviation:
    Camber Aviation:
    Duncan Aviation:
    Elliott Aviation:

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