Many an owner has looked for an airplane to upgrade- only to find that the best mission capability and financial value was already sitting in their hangar - the airplane they already owned! All that the current airplane needed was “a little TLC (teak- leather and chrome)”- as one interior specialist was quoted to say recently. “It doesn’t have to be chrome – or teak or leather- for that matter-” the consultant explained. “It does have to look good- smell great and wear like the best.”

Dave Higdon  |  01st August 2011
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Dave Higdon
Dave Higdon

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

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Refurbishing Your Aircraft
Smart selections = Best materials and finishes.

Many an owner has looked for an airplane to upgrade- only to find that the best mission capability and financial value was already sitting in their hangar - the airplane they already owned! All that the current airplane needed was “a little TLC (teak- leather and chrome)”- as one interior specialist was quoted to say recently. “It doesn’t have to be chrome – or teak or leather- for that matter-” the consultant explained. “It does have to look good- smell great and wear like the best.”

Walnut or teak- chrome or brass- leather or faux synthetic - these and other materials figure into an interior makeover that ends up with an airplane looking- smelling and wearing ‘like new’- from the carpet to the headliner- cockpit to aft bulkhead.

The key questions are as follows:
• What materials should you choose- and how do you choose them? • Does higher-dollar always mean higher value? • Where- and how do you balance style versus functionality?

Playing a role in answering these and other questions are the experts at refurbishment shops and overhaul and maintenance centers around the globe.

As World Aircraft Sales Magazine set about asking them- although their specific pieces of advice focused on different areas a common thread emerged from the conversations - essentially the need to work with knowledgeable people and to have a thorough knowledge of your goals are key factors to a successful- satisfying and cost-effective interior refurbishment.

“Refurbishment is the way a lot of people are going – because of the economy-” explained Barry Smith- executive director of Business Air International- which works with clients to upgrade- refurbish or sell their airplanes. “Refurbishing to whatever degree lets an owner keep their airplane for another two- three- four or more years and have something that works like new.”

An aircraft owner enjoys complete latitude where operating- maintaining and paying for the airplane. Whether an individual- a corporation- fractional operator- government - it’s the same. No matter the owner or ownership structure a few givens always apply to the airplane.

First and foremost- the owner is always responsible for maintaining the airplane to regulatory standards. Whether the owner or a hired aviator – there is an equal responsibility to assure the airplane flown is up-to-date on everything before it can be operated.

With maintenance obligations come varying degrees of downtime- and downtime is a great time to consider an upgrade- said experts from a variety of firms versed in the vagaries of aircraft renewal and restoration.

“The key is that you’d better plan on it taking longer than you think…otherwise- it will eat up your time-” Smith stressed.

Whether Cessna Aircraft’s nationwide in-house shop network- Duncan Aviation’s extensive operation in Nebraska- Corrigan Air Center in Texas- or another Lone Star operation Business Air International and its affiliate Jet Works- the same message came through loud and clear. Handling two – or more – needs in one stretch of downtime will save the time of pursuing a stand-alone interior project.

“The way these things typically work-” explained Smith- describing a job to be handled by Jet Works in Denton- Texas- “is that interior refurbishments are triggered around certain maintenance needs where the downtime offers an excellent opportunity to do the work more conveniently.”

Long-time owners tend to be in-tune with the maintenance schedules for their airplanes so they know to schedule an alternative to the company airplane when it’s due to be down for a six-monthly check- its annual inspection- or one of the many other recurring maintenance slots applicable to their aircraft.

“They may have phased inspections; they may be looking at a major level check – a C or D Check – which takes the airplane out of service for several weeks every few years. What better time than one of these inspections that already requires the removal of the interior components-” asked Smith.

“Six-to-eight months prior to the airplane’s arrival we [client and refurb shop] will start talking-” Smith explained. “The further ahead the better.” Such consultations give the shop time to work with the owner on defining the work desired (perhaps working with a specialist designer - all reputable shops employ such specialists) before moving on to picking materials for the job.

“The first thing we need-” according to one interior specialist for a major airframe maker- “is an idea of what the customer wants. What are their expectations from their interiors? That way we can determine whether all they want is feasible or foolhardy.”

Does the owner merely want to duplicate the interior form as it exists and refresh the materials? “Perhaps they need only a rags and rugs update” Smith offered- “- seat covers and carpeting.”

The more standardized- the easier the project should be. The less the cabin changes in the process- the faster – and less expensive – the effort becomes. The level of work involved will- however- also depend on the airframe- the system and the existence of any approvals that connect airframe and the computer hardware.

Duncan Aviation- for example- offers a two-week turn-around for scheduled installations of its latest offering- Gogo Biz high-speed in-flight internet service working with airframes for which the shop already holds certifications (a significant number). The absence of your airplane from the list of certified airframes doesn’t close the door on such an adaptation - though it may change the time and expense equation the company takes on the project.

“We can do almost anything a customer wants-” a Duncan executive stressed at one conference. “The issues become time and money – and how seriously the client wants a change goes to how much he’s willing to spend.”

Smith echoed this view- noting that while individuals and corporations may differ in how they choose to upgrade an airplane- the willingness to fund changes is always a limiting factor. “In the end- you’ve got to help the customer decide; help them pick the materials- and pick the right time-” Smith said. “The key is that you had better start planning early…otherwise- it’ll take much longer than you had anticipated.”

Some clients weigh everything according to need and how that need affects the costs- while some pay little heed to costs. Representatives from several airframe and individual shops offered similar responses to the divergent perspectives.

The cost-versus-benefit types may prove more demanding for refurb shop staff through tracking spending and questioning things throughout – but they don’t tend to walk in wanting borderline outrageous items in their jet.

“You get a lot more wants versus needs with individual owners-” Smith outlined. “The guy with a large-cabin jet that has a 40-inch flat screen (television)- for example- wants a 52-inch screen – because he wants a 52-inch screen.”

As an interior specialist for a major OEM explained- “It may not help to be able to tell them the space won’t accommodate something. We once received a question from an owner of an entry-level jet asking whether we could install a gaming-system and 42-inch monitor. They thought it would help keep his kids from getting bored.”

Smith outlined- “At the bottom-end and at the upper-end we get a lot of individual wants - but in the middle- where companies and corporations own most of the aircraft we service- needs versus cost numbers are the name of the game.” Recommendations about work and materials ran along consistent lines.

Never sell your airplane short: don’t scrimp on materials when it’s labor that accounts for so much of a refurbishing job. This was the takeaway from conversations with staff at several refurbishment shops with interior expertise.

The message also comes through at any of the websites promoting business aircraft refurbishment. They all note their preferences for top-end materials along with working with reputable vendors at every step.

The reputable vendors that shops tend to patronize tend to have become known to them through prior jobs over long periods of time - through helping the shops refine and narrow their preferred pools of suppliers – fabrics or leather- metal finishing or woodworking and cabinetry.

The brothers Michael and Patrick’s Corrigan Air Center put it this way: “We believe that a quality finished product begins with first-rate materials and anything less is unacceptable.”

“It’s no different than when you’re buying clothes-” explained Billy McDonald at Jet WorksAir Center. “There are vendors we like to work with. We know well the quality of the work they do. We weigh the customers request along with our experience with certain vendors and take it from there.”
His co-worker Marc Johnson noted- “For executives- you want material that looks and wears well - but you don’t want or need the same level for an airplane that typically hauls repair people- engineers and parts to work sites. The interior should reflect what the airplane does. The materials used should match.”

The result: longer life and greater satisfaction. “Don’t get pulled into the idea of using obviously cheaper materials- because you’ll likely want to replace it sooner than you wanted-” warned Johnson.

Smith added- “We’ve always taken the position that the most-premium product you can afford is going to last longer- and will help should time come to sell the aircraft- because the premium-material is going to look better.

“Fabrics- cushions and carpeting – you can scrimp- but it will show sooner rather than later-” Johnson noted. “Our view is that you should go with the highest possible value you can afford now- because it’s going to pay-off in the longer term.”

Selecting materials is only a portion of a refurbishment project – and should come only after deciding on the work package.

“Most jobs don’t require any engineering-” Smith outlined. “Not when all you’re doing is renewing the interior with new fabrics- carpets and upholstery - maybe even new veneers and coatings. But the instant you say that you want to move a chair or cabinet- things get ‘involved’.”

That’s when engineers enter the fray - to design and get approval for the changes. Similarly- an owner might want to add the equipment for a full-flying office in place of the galley. “If it can fit into the same cabinets - if all we do is refinish them and add the needed wiring - that may require no more paperwork than the STC for the internet server-” explained a former interior designer for Cessna (among other companies).

“New cabinetry- or moved cabinetry- however - even the old stuff in a different spot in the same airplane… that becomes involved.” That- Smith advised- is when you look for depth in the firm you choose to do the refurbishment work.

“The big shops- Duncan- Cessna- StandardAero- Jet Works and many others can do the engineering to the end of the project. Our company works with shops that can turn a job into a one-stop project. But not all shops can do everything – that’s when you really need to know your ultimate goals for the project.”

Smith and others noted the considerable depth of one-job vendors – those specialized only in interiors- powerplant work- avionics work or paint. “These can be good to work with if all you need is to renew the interior or get a new paint job”- he outlined. “But remember - combining refurbishment work with other projects can save downtime and money”.

“The worst problems occur when the customer wants to take on too much-” said our former airframe company interior expert. “Getting in as much as the time allows is good. However- throwing in so much that it exaggerates the downtime is not necessarily wise.”

In conclusion- the consensus of mistakes to avoid when looking for a cabin upgrade or re-fit follow:

• Don’t try to go cheap: inferior quality will cost you more in the long-run than it saves short-term.

• Don’t go too far: keep a balance with idea for upgrade- and don’t go too far unless there’s an obvious payback – or unless you plan to keep the airplane beyond the useful life of the extras.

• Look ahead: if the airplane is going to be sold in under two years- experts advise keeping interior work simple: ‘rags and rugs’- as Smith put it- and maybe some wood and brightwork restoration as opposed to replacement.

• Consider your work utility: an interior upgrade- renewal or refurbishment may be the best time to add those office capabilities previously unavailable but not considered mandatory - think web access.

• Work with experts- from conception to completion: “You may have a great interior designer-” said McDonald of Jet Works- “but unless they’ve designed for an aircraft interior- you’ll need an expert in aircraft interior design.” They can be set up to work together – and for you.

More information from:
Business Air International:

Citation Service Centers:

Corrigan Air Center:

Duncan Aviation:

Jet Works Air Center:


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