As part of its Red Label program, which provides clients with late-model aircraft and flight crews who are assigned to specific planes, the fractional provider Flexjet now offers the LXi Cabin Collection, a series of more than 20 different cabin designs for the aircraft in its fleet. Ric Michaels, the director of product development for Flexjet, is the collection’s lead designer. He spoke about the evolution of fractional-aircraft interiors, the process of designing the collection, and some of his favorite interiors.
Can you give some background information about the LXi collection?
It’s the, let’s say, tangible component of Red Label. It’s intended to differentiate our fractional products from this industry that is very accustomed to having the same color, the same theme for all aircraft interiors.
Isn’t there a strategy to having a sameness to interiors? They may not excite anyone, but they also won’t offend anyone.
That’s a correct assessment. Let me rewind the calendar, because we were for many years guilty of this as well. I’ve been with this organization 35 years, and we go back to the early days of fractional, the early days of charter. It was a common strategy back then to have all the aircraft look alike on the outside and look exactly alike on the inside. It was probably Marketing 101, where you want a consistent look for the brand throughout the fleet. As the fractional industry matured, it occurred to us that the industry had not left behind the tans and taupes and the sameness and predictability.
We know that hotels of the same brand, for example, are not the same as each other. You might stay at a luxury brand’s hotel in New York and then go to that same brand’s hotel in Washington, but you don’t know what the design theme of the room is going be until you unlock the door. What a nice surprise it would be, we thought, to not know ahead of time exactly which cabin design you might be flying in today.
When they’re scheduling a flight, can clients reserve a cabin design. Or is it a matter of being given whichever one is available?
You can’t request a specific interior, because we don’t know if it will be available on that day. That’s the nature of fractional ownership. Our dossier on a customer can be detailed enough to know what their preference is, if they share it with us, but it is difficult in our business to guarantee a specific theme for a specific day.
I read that there are more than 20 different interiors across the different jet categories. Is that correct?
We’ve got several that are in the queue, so it’s about 24 now, and the number is growing. By the end of 2018, we’ll have more than 30 different interiors. It’s a long lead time for new aircraft, so I’m working on designs now for 2019 and 2020.
What’s the process for selecting a theme?
Those of us who design things sometimes are inspired by the least likely items. I can get inspiration if I ride in somebody’s Bentley or stay at a fine hotel. What I will notice are the hard surfaces, the things that are not easy to change. I was in a hotel and it had lots of veneer that looked like driftwood, and I thought, this could be a theme. That begins the process. I’ll take an idea and then I’ll first try to focus on and finalize the hard surfaces. That means veneers, plating, those things.
Then I move to the soft surfaces, because they can change over time. They can wear out; they can be reupholstered in a few years. But veneers and plating generally stay for a long, long time, so it’s important to get those right. Then the accents.
Airplanes are different from homes or cars because you spend most of your time in them when they’re above the clouds, in a place where the light is completely different. You’ve got to be respectful of that element. My design center has an outside patio, and I’ll set things up outside, and I’ll drive around with samples of materials in the front seat of my car for a couple of weeks to see how they look in bright sunlight and on cloudy days. It takes a lot of time to just study what you have.
And, of course, we rely on renderings. We’ve got some great rendering services and all the aircraft manufacturers have nice rendering capability. A picture’s worth a thousand words, so to speak. The renderings allow us to see if we’re on the right track.
Do most ideas make it through, from concept to construction?
For each design that makes the grade, we’ve probably done six to eight that don’t.
How do you decide which theme is going work with which cabin size or which model?
On the larger aircraft, I’ve done art deco designs, I’ve done boardroom designs. Those take a little more inspiration. A fun, sporty look seems to suit the smaller aircraft. Our Embraer [Phenom 300] and our Learjet  products will get something that’s a little bit sportier and maybe a little bit more risky. A larger aircraft, like a large home, has so many more components, but it also gives us the opportunity to be more creative.
Of the designs in the collection, do you have a favorite?
They say your favorite is whatever you’re working on now, and I’m very dedicated to whatever I’m working on. But as I look back, I probably have two or three that stand out. One is the art deco theme. We will have more art-deco designs coming in our Gulfstreams in 2018. We included some interesting use of veneer inlays, some interesting use of padded, diamond-tufted sidewalls around windows, and a pastel color palette like you would’ve seen in the 1920s. And we were honest to the period. For example, during the art-deco period, nothing was chrome because chrome hadn’t been invented yet. What’s often mistaken for chrome was actually polished nickel. The plating in our art deco themes is nickel.
Any other designs that stand out for you?
We did a boardroom theme that was inspired by the Thomas Crown Affair, which has scenes in boardrooms with rich dark woods and a lot of leather. We did some unique things with the sidewalls using shiny leather with distressed leather.
Thunderbird also one of your favorites?
For the Bombardier Challenger 350, we had one theme called Cognac and the other was called Art Deco. Both were very warm, chestnut-type color palettes. I broke away from those two and did an interior that is gray, with a couple shades of gray leather and some suede, and a veneer that is kind of a gray silver. No browns. It looks like the BMW that I drive.