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Private Travel: Haute and Heavy

Michael Schulze and Shaun Tolson

Somewhere in the world, a Boeing jet flies with a throne in its center, and on a plaque above that seat an ornately engraved passage gives praise to that royal leader’s god. In other large jets—known in the aviation industry as heavy metal—you might find a dance floor, an exercise room, a waterfall, a car garage, a horse stable, a whirlpool bath, or even a medical room in which a surgeon can perform open-heart surgery (although this is best conducted on the ground). Less elaborate amenities can include a king-size bed, a stand-up shower, a cinema-style viewing room, live TV, a restaurant-style galley, a complete office with high-speed Internet service, and a table that can seat a dozen or more business associates or dinner guests. Chairs and sofas can be upholstered in exotic leathers, and surfaces may be finished with marble, granite, or alabaster, perhaps even inlaid with rubies, jade, or mother-of-pearl.

The jet manufacturers do not provide these features. Instead, they deliver their aircraft in “green” condition—so named because the empty interiors typically receive a coat of green primer paint. The buyer of the jet then has it flown to a completion center, a company that works with the buyer to design and install the interior. The process can take more than two years and can cost from $25 million to as much as $150 million. This is in addition to the price of the jet itself, which may range from about $50 million for a narrow-body Boeing Business Jet II to about $300 million for an Airbus A380, the largest passenger plane in history, which has yet to reach customers (see “Elevating First Class” ).
 

Lufthansa Technik, working with Reiner Heim Design of Munich, created these interior concepts for the Airbus A380, the largest passenger plane in history. (Click images to enlarge)

Completion centers number in the dozens (see “The Finishing Touch,” page 124), and three companies stand at the head of the group: Jet Aviation in Basel, Switzerland; Lufthansa Technik in Hamburg, Germany; and Associated Air Center (AAC) near Dallas. Because of their expansive facilities and talented staffs, these companies, which perform only custom work, tend to attract the most demanding interior design jobs.

AAC installs interiors at the Love Field airport five miles west of Dallas, in two massive hangars that can accommodate three jets each. One hangar is dedicated to Boeings, from the BBJ to VIP configurations of commercial craft such as the beefy, long-range 747-400. The other hangar handles Airbus aircraft, including the Airbus Corporate Jetliner and private versions of the company’s A320 and other commercial planes. AAC completes seven to eight aircraft per year, compared to only one or two a few years ago. With demand greater than it ever has been, the company plans to expand further, possibly overseas.

Clearly, the company has evolved from its beginnings as a supplier of surplus military radios to civilian planes

Inside a 111-foot-long Airbus A319, Chris Mason, a director at AAC, inspects a fastening on a long black cable, one of hundreds snaking along the green bulkhead walls. “This is the first step in installation,” he says. “We lay at least 60 miles of wiring in every plane. This cable feeds the DVD player.” He points elsewhere. “The office lighting goes here. Consider that every wire must be laid in a particular order, to make room for others. Project managers design the cabling and all that follows on paper, step by step. It’s enormously complicated. But after awhile, believe it or not, you can do a lot of it in your head.”
 

Lufthansa Technik’s A380 concept includes this 200-square-foot lounge. (Click image to enlarge)

Mason should know: He served as a project manager for AAC for nine years. In addition to an office, he says, this particular A319 will have a master bedroom, a galley, a conference and dining room, and a lounge for the owner’s guests. It will be able to sleep 12 people comfortably, which is unusual for a narrow-body craft.

Proceeding through the jet, Mason explains how the workmen build vibration isolators into cabinets and install panels called “bats” to reduce noise. They also place inserts in drawers to keep glassware from rattling. Each cabinet must have a decompression panel, a small door that swings open to allow pressure to disperse if necessary. “And we have to make big tables flexible,” Mason adds, “because the fuselage bends in flight.”

He smiles. “We also think about the fun stuff, of course: the plasma TVs that descend from the ceiling, the surround-sound systems, the adjustable beds, the $40,000 faucets. But above all, we’re concerned about keeping the plane as safe as possible.”

The Federal Aviation Administration shares that concern. The FAA imposes an enormous number of restrictions (called FARs, or Federal Aviation Requirements) on a plane’s interior design, and following every installation, a completion company must effectively have the plane recertified for flight. AAC works very closely with the FAA, to the point of having an agency proxy work at its Dallas office full-time. “Clients often wonder why they can’t have everything they dream up for their jet,” Mason says. “But actually, it’s amazing what we can do given the constraints involved. We have to consider the balance of weight on a plane, and its crashworthiness. And we fire-test everything—the carpets, leather, curtains, veneers.”

Weight is an issue as well. Aircraft are not allowed to fly if they exceed their MTOW (maximum takeoff weight). Adding weight to a jet increases its fuel burn and can reduce the amount of cargo that it can carry. Weight also reduces a plane’s range, which is an important consideration for VIP customers who frequently take long flights.
 

  

These mock-ups (here and below) from Jet Aviation show designer Peder Eidsgaard’s designs for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. (Click images to enlarge)

In AAC’s main office, senior lead designer Lauri Church explains how she addresses the weight problem. “If a client wants a material like malachite, we might grind it down to about one-eighth of an inch, then attach it to a honeycombed aluminum panel,” says Church, who supervises a staff of 15 as well as out-of-house designers. “Gold, chrome, or cobalt plating is good-looking and lightweight. And you’d be surprised how much of what appears to be stone in a custom jet is actually faux painting. We have amazing painters.”
 

  

Church conducts several design reviews with each client, including a virtual three-dimensional walk-through if desired. After the client approves the design, AAC puts its cabinetmakers, sheet metal workers, electricians, upholsterers, finishers, and installers to the task. Almost every part of the interior is built in-house.

In his office down the hall, AAC president Jeff Bosque shakes his head. “It wasn’t always like this,” says Bosque, who began his career in aviation in the 1970s, sweeping floors at Grumman Aerospace. “After World War II, a lot of surplus military planes were floating around, and a fellow named Lee Lanford started removing their radios and installing them in civilian aircraft. The company moved to seats, then minibars . . . soon it was installing full interiors.”

AAC worked on a variety of jet types, including Gulfstream, Lockheed, and McDonnell Douglas aircraft, until it settled on its current specialty of Airbus and Boeing jets. In 2001 AAC was acquired by Piedmont Hawthorne, an aircraft maintenance organization, and Piedmont, its parent Garrett Aviation Services, and AAC were all bundled into a new entity called Landmark Aviation in 2005. The company, which is headquartered in Tempe, Ariz., operates jet sales, management, charter, modification, and maintenance facilities throughout the United States.

AAC employs more than 500 of Landmark Aviation’s some 2,500 staff members, but if it is going to expand further, it will have to grow its facility in Dallas or build a new one. “I’ve been thinking of building overseas,” Bosque reveals. “The Middle East has been a strong market for us since the 1980s. Russia, India, and China are all seeing a huge increase in billionaires.”

Globalization might come more easily to AAC if a recent acquisition proposal goes through. In March, Dubai Aerospace Enterprise, a government-owned firm, offered to purchase Landmark Aviation and the Canadian aviation company Standard Aero for $1.8 billion. That deal could receive a good deal of scrutiny, however, given the political furor that erupted last year when Dubai interests proposed to manage some U.S. ports.

One region that Bosque does not mention is Europe, but some of his staff members acknowledge that the continent is on his mind, for there, AAC’s two biggest competitors, Jet Aviation and Lufthansa Technik, hold court.

Jet Aviation, a full-service private aviation company founded in 1967 in Switzerland, employs more than 5,000 people throughout the world, over 1,000 of them at its completion center in Basel. Like AAC, Jet Aviation Basel is a vertical operation with its own engineering and design departments and construction, upholstery, and paint shops. It customizes jets of every size but favors the larger ones. Last fall, the company received a commission for an Airbus 330-200, which will receive a “VVIP” configuration that will include a master bedroom, dressing salon, private salon, main lounge, business center, and conference and dining room. French designer Philippe Starck will create the interior, which is to be completed next March.
 

A 144-square-foot lounge in an Airbus Corporate Jetliner, designed and installed by Associated Air Center of Dallas. (Click image to enlarge)

Jet Aviation Basel also is collaborating with London-based yacht and aircraft interior designer Peder Eidsgaard to create concepts for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, a 186-foot-long, long-range commercial craft that is expected to reach customers next summer, and the A350, a wide-body jet under development at Airbus. For the Dreamliner, Eidsgaard proposes to install a cinema lounge with stepped seating, a 60-inch plasma screen, and a large mezzanine daybed. “The architecture is conceived to ensure long vistas and a sense of openness,” Eidsgaard says of the interior’s overall design, “while still giving passengers plenty of privacy,” especially in two cul-de-sacs at the front and rear of the plane.

In early 2006, Jet Aviation acquired Midcoast Aviation of St. Louis, Mo., an aircraft maintenance and completion operation that employs about 850 people. Midcoast hopes to take on or finish some 60 projects within the next three years.

In Germany, Lufthansa Technik, which was spun off from an engineering division of the Lufthansa airline in 1994, has produced a number of spectacular jet interiors, including one that incorporates a garage for a BMW. Last year, just as Jet Aviation Basel was announcing its work with Peder Eidsgaard, Lufthansa Technik revealed a layout for the Boeing Dreamliner created by London designer Andrew Winch. The configuration includes 32 seats that recline into lie-flat beds, a lounge, a dining and conference room, a master stateroom, a movie theater, two en suite guest cabins, and as many as four bathrooms with stand-up showers. The interior is expected to cost $30 million to $70 million, depending on the owner’s requests.

According to Lufthansa Technik CEO August Henningsen, his company has spoken with a couple of potential buyers of the giant Airbus A380. As of May, however, neither Lufthansa nor any of the other big completion centers had finalized an A380 deal—although Edése Doret, a designer in New York, had won a contract for a design. Airbus has sold only one “Flying Palace,” the term the company uses for the private version of its A380, reportedly to a head of state, and Doret is designing its interior. He reports that his $100 million–plus plan includes two dining areas, a 600-square-foot master suite, a game room, a whirlpool tub, and a fiber-optic mosaic that will depict a shifting desert scene. Although it may be a palace, this particular jet will not house a throne—but if all goes according to plan, it will have its own missile-defense system. —Michael Schulze

 

Associated Air Center, 214.350.4111, www.landmarkaviation.com
Jet Aviation USA, 201.288.8400, www.jetaviation.com
Lufthansa Technik, +49.40.5070.3667, www.lufthansa-technik.com

The Finishing Touch

Dozens of companies throughout the world design and install jet interiors. Some of these completion firms, as they are called, are full-service shops, while others specialize in particular aircraft or in parts of aircraft—electronic systems, for example. Here is a sampling of experienced and well regarded North American companies.

Duncan Aviation
This company, based in Nebraska, operates the largest family-owned aircraft support facility in the United States. Its broad array of services includes interior refurbishments for business jets as large as Gulfstreams. Highlights of its interior work include stone countertops and custom thermal and acoustic insulation packages. 800.228.4277, www.duncanaviation.com

Elliott Aviation
This Illinois firm provides full interior refurbishments, including fiber-optic lighting, electric window shades, and in-seat heating and massage systems. It also installs electronic systems that can incorporate phones, fax machines, Internet connections, DVD players, and real-time displays of the aircraft’s position. 309.799.3183, www.elliottaviation.com

Goderich Aircraft
Specializing in turboprop planes and small and midsize jets, this Canadian firm designs and installs avionics as well as aircraft interiors. For seating surfaces, it uses only sheepskin and full-grained aniline dyed leather. Choices for cabinet surfaces include more than 100 laminates. The company is located in Huron Park, Ontario. 519.228.6706, www.goderichaircraft.com

Gore Design Completions
This company focuses on Boeing jets but can handle other aircraft. It recently built a 120,000-square-foot hangar at the former Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio. The hangar can house two Boeing Jumbo Jets, making Gore one of the larger completion centers in North America. 210.496.5614, www.goredesign.com

Savannah Air Center
Located at the Savannah International Airport in Georgia, this firm handles completions for jets as large as the Gulfstream V and Bombardier Global Express. All the company’s cabinetry is produced on-site, in a new 12,500-square-foot shop. 912.963.0640, www.savannahaircenter.com

Stevens Aviation
The interior work of this aviation services company, founded in South Carolina in 1950, ranges from carpeting and upholstery upgrades to custom galleys, soundproofing, and high-end electronics such as flight and navigation displays. The firm performs completion work at four U.S. locations, including a 200,000-square-foot facility at the Donaldson Center Industrial Air Park in Greenville. 800.359.7838, www.stevensaviation.com  —Shaun Tolson

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