““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
Outfitting your aircraft's cabin
Not long ago, a chief pilot would be assigned the job of managing the cabin completion of a new aircraft or riding herd on the refurbishment of a used one. Those days are fast becoming a memory, gone the way of wooden propellers, fabric-covered wings and open cockpits.
The completion or refurbishment of a modern business jet is a complex project requiring specialized skills and artistic talent. Here are 10 tips to help you find that talent and get the ball rolling.
1. Don't wait. Assuming the economy keeps recovering, however slowly, the private jet industry will also continue to rebound. As it does, available slots for a completion or refurbishment project will dwindle. In the case of single- and twin-aisle airliner conversion to executive/VIP configuration, the wait could already be a year or more.
Take into consideration that before your airplane ever rolls into the completion or refurbishment center, a lot of work must be done, much of it requiring your attention. In fact, the outfitting process could begin six months or more before the airplane arrives at the center.
2. Decide what you want. Sit down with your pilot and chief mechanic and make a list of what you'd like in the cabin. You may wish to include an interior designer, your spouse or other executives and friends in the discussion. In some cases, they may know your tastes better than you do, or may at least be able to describe them
Would you like high-speed Internet connectivity? How about Wi-Fi, a high-definition entertainment system, moving-map display or Blu-ray player? How many video monitors and how large should they be? How many and what kind of seats do you want? What about galley amenities such as a convection oven or trash compactor? Would you like a cabin humidifier? What type of lighting, toilet and shower would you prefer?
And don't forget the details. For example, do you want seats that are electrically articulated and convert to full-flat berthing for long, overnight flights? The devil truly is in the details.
Divide the list into two groups–what you want and what you need–as cost or time can often trump desire. Take your wish list with you when you begin meeting with designers and engineers from completion and refurbishment centers.
3. Consider an independent consultant. "You don't commission a $30 million building with yourself as the building manager," said Ralph Emery, chairman of Aviation Concepts in Dallas, "so why would you do that with a $30 million jet in which the design criteria are even more complex?"
Independent completion and refurbishment consultants are fairly common these days, especially with large and complex cabin-outfitting projects. Some are well known in the industry and have reputations for honesty and efficiency. Others, not so much. A good one can manage the project–from picking the right airplane to the final test flight and delivery–and can save you a lot of time and expense.
Further, independent consultants can work in that minefield between what you want and what the completion/refurbishment center says it can do. And they understand FAA requirements as well as the certification process for off-the-shelf items like that Italian espresso maker you plan to order.
4. Shop carefully. There's no easy way to pick a completion or refurbishment center. You can't check with Angie's List or J.D. Power and Associates or the Better Business Bureau. You can, however, tour centers you're considering. And when you do, don't just talk to the president, but also with key individuals, like the director of completions or refurbishment and the heads of the cabinetry and upholstery shops.
And if the center outsources, get the names of key suppliers that are likely to be associated with your project, and talk with them. They can be an excellent source of honest information about the facility.
Question the center's workload and slot availability. It isn't unknown for centers to take on more work than they can handle to ensure that their hangars and ramps stay full. This can cause delays in delivery of the finished airplane, according to David Salkovitz, vice president of sales and marketing at M&D Aviation in Sanford, Fla.
Is the shop clean and well organized? Take a close look at the employees. Are they dressed for the job? As one completion center executive put it, "If they don't take pride in their appearance, they're not likely to take pride in their work."
Also, ask whether the center meets all federal, state and local codes and requirements, and whether it is insured and at what level.
References? Every center is likely to have done at least a few satisfactory, or even superior, cabin projects. Call some previous customers and ask detailed questions.
The last stage of the selection process involves cutting the choices down to a short list and sending requests for bids. Don't be surprised if there is a considerable range in the bids you receive.
5. Pay attention. Once the project gets underway, it's time to find out whether all those ideas on your wish list are even possible–and if they are, what they'll cost.
For example, having old 9g seats reupholstered will be as much as $500,000 less expensive than getting new 16g seats.
One refurbishment center took on the major makeover of a Learjet interior for a customer who was determined to include a glass chandelier–this in a cabin with barely enough headroom to accommodate R2D2. A BBJ owner approached another center about installing a working fireplace. Lesson to be learned? Be realistic.
This is a critical point in the completion/refurbishment process. Here is where you will make choices covering everything from lighting, fabrics, leather, colors and entertainment components to the cabin-management system, monitors and carpet. And there are literally hundreds of details that if not specified early on will come back later to take a major bite out of your wallet.
The designers and engineers will have their own questions. For example, do you plan to make the airplane available for charter? If so, the additional wear and tear will dictate the type of leather, fabrics, carpeting and wood trim you should select.
6. Think about the next owner. Virtually every airplane owner expects to sell the aircraft at some point. So the question is, are you going to select a design so highly personalized that it reduces resale value? If your cabin is very unusual, chances are that it will appeal to a relatively small pool of buyers; anyone else will want a price break, because the first thing they'll want to do after purchasing the airplane is have the interior gutted and refurbished.
7. Choose technology carefully. Most owners will make choices based on compatibility, durability, and ease of maintenance, whether it is the latest technology available and whether the systems can be easily upgraded.
One recent trend is to incorporate interface docks for personal entertainment devices. This began several years ago as passengers began coming aboard with iPods and MP3 players and looking for a dock that would allow them to view videos and listen to music on the cabin-entertainment system, using large in-place monitors to share content with traveling companions.
This trend could go a step further as tablet computers and high-speed Internet connections render even in-flight satellite television irrelevant, predicted Tom Heck, supervisor of sales and marketing at Cessna Aircraft's Wichita Citation Service Center. "The iPad, iPod, iPhone and such are their own entertainment centers, carrying hundreds of movies and thousands of songs that you can watch at your seat, or share with others through the cabin-management system," he explained.
In many completion centers, design points of the interior are integrated into a virtual-reality program so you can see the cabin take shape on a computer monitor and make adjustments and changes to the color palette, type of wood veneer or lighting.
8. Agree on milestones. This is the standard means of tracking the satisfactory progress of a completion or refurbishment. Most completion and refurbishment centers will assign an individual, or even a team, of technicians to walk through at prearranged points in the process to ensure that the job is on schedule and the work meets specifications.
Centers will also provide customers with an office for the duration of their visit. It is not unheard of for less reputable centers to bring in people to work on an aircraft just prior to a visit by the principal or his representative, only to move them to a project deemed more urgent when the customer leaves.
These milestones are not pulled out of the blue. Typically, they represent points at which an approval is required before moving forward, and they may include progress payments.
Catching a problem or demanding a change at this point will almost always be less costly–sometimes much less costly–than at a later point. And don't merely walk through. Look at everything and closely. One owner, whose airplane was in for a major galley makeover, happened to peek into the space where the crystal glasses were to be hung and realized that in the recessed, mirrored back, he could see reflected the naked heads of the screws holding the bottom in place. That might be OK in a budget-priced home bookshelf, but in a $20 million private jet?
Another owner visited the partially finished lavatory and discovered that when seated, there was no way the occupant could reach the bath tissue.
Some completion and refurbishment centers will lay out the entire cabin management and entertainment system, including monitors, controllers and lighting, in the shop prior to installation. Every switch, every relay, everything in the system will be tested and approved before it is sent out for installation. Most will also bring in the owner and/or consultant to examine the system to determine not only whether it works to their satisfaction but whether it is intuitive and user-friendly.
9. Take a "cold soak" flight. Don't let the term throw you. They call the flight that because the airplane is taken to its maximum certified altitude and put through its paces. Every drawer in every cabinet, every button and every switch is tested, most often by the completion or refurbishment center team. The list may include 200 items or more, all of which must be checked off. There are often two such flights, one for the company and another for the FAA's representative. Small aircraft may require multiple flights. Larger-cabin jets might spend eight hours or more on a single flight.
The number of passengers on these flights is usually limited to individuals involved in the test program, the center's own technicians and the FAA representatives who will certify the interior.
The second or third flight is reserved for the owner and/or consultant and guests. It will last the equivalent of the aircraft's maximum range. On the way, the passengers will be served a meal, play with all the controls and examine the workmanship for any flaws.
10. Relax. Don't worry if you don't catch every little problem, such as a missing drawer latch or a balky seat recline. That's why you have a warranty, which normally applies for two or three years. That's also why some completion and refurbishment centers will assign an individual to follow your airplane for weeks, even months, to ensure a prompt fix for anything that goes wrong.