Cabin complexities call for independent expertise

 - March 26, 2007, 7:31 AM

The independent aircraft interior completion manager is based on a dusty little airport on the outskirts of Fort Worth, Texas, and the airplane interior being finished is in a hangar halfway around the world, where a crown prince is awaiting delivery.
Michael Ward, president and CEO of EAS Completions in Addison, Texas, said that procedure is working out pretty well. But it doesn’t come together without a lot of detailed planning and logistics management and the occasional bout of agita.

EAS is one of a number of independent companies offering aircraft owners a form of turnkey service in planning, managing and monitoring their aircraft interior completion or refurbishment, in some cases all the way from aircraft acquisition through delivery. Most are small, employing a core staff of less than a half-dozen full-time employees and hiring contract expertise as the job demands. And the good ones, said Herbert Artinger, founder and owner of Aircraft Conformance Engineering Service (Aces), take a certain pride in that independent status.

“The advantage to the owner is that our allegiance is to the owner and no one else,” said Artinger. “We’re working for the guy who writes our check, and that’s the owner of the airplane.”

Barely a decade ago, an aircraft owner would have relied on the chief pilot or mechanic, or perhaps even a highly regarded flight attendant, to represent his interests throughout a major refurbishment by an independent completion and refurbishment center, or even a new airplane interior completion by the manufacturer. But this has changed, particularly where widebody executive interiors are concerned.

Complexity Requires the Service of a Specialist
The process of an interior completion or refurbishment was complicated 10 years ago. Since then, it has become only more so. For example, even as companies compete to sell the latest satellite flight phone systems, they and others are developing newer and better technology. Still others are working on systems that will allow the in-flight use of personal cellphones. Through it all, the guidance of a completion manager is invaluable.

Does the customer want a 42-inch LCD monitor installed in the bulkhead? One manufacturer sells its model for a little more than $17,000. A competitor’s comparable model will cost more than $40,000.

A customer buying a pre-owned Gulfstream IV-SP and having it refurbished can order a 9-g, three-place, side-facing divan approved for use during takeoff and landing for about $8,000. But if he’s buying a new Global Express, a comparable divan must be certified for 16-g loads if approved for takeoff and landing, and the price is likely to be closer to $50,000.

Even a simple choice is not so simple. Sure, the customer can have his favorite Krups coffee maker installed in the galley, rather than a coffee maker already approved by the FAA for use aboard an aircraft. But that same Krups that costs about $200 at Kmart might cost $30,000 by the time all the tests have been completed to have it certified by the FAA. In addition, it might take several months just for the FAA to approve the item for testing, and that means a delay in design of the galley, which in turn means a delay in the wiring assembly.

It’s no surprise then that more and more business aircraft buyers are hiring independent interior completion management specialists to work with the completion center on their behalf.

“It’s absolutely essential,” said Ralph Emery, chairman of Aviation Concepts in Dallas.
“The customers need honest information if they’re going to make intelligent decisions.”

If there was some initial resistance on the part of completion and refurbishment centers to having third parties come in and manage a cabin completion on behalf of the owner, that seems to have changed.

The truth is, said Emery, “an independent interiors management specialist benefits both the owner and the completion center, in terms of time and cost.”

Independent interior completion management companies focus primarily on the large executive cabin market. Aviation Concepts has just delivered one BBJ2 by Associated Air Center, and has a BBJ currently in the works.

Ironically, as demand is increasing, Emery said Aviation Concepts has scaled back the number of full-time employees and is moving more toward “a design-consultant philosophy.” He explained that it is a less labor-intensive way of doing business and one that “allows us to focus more on the individual client.”

Aces has handled cabin completion management on more than 20 business jets in the 10 years of its existence, ranging from an executive version of an Airbus A310 to a privately owned Boeing 777.

EAS completed its first airplane, the Boeing 737-400 for the Crown Prince of Thailand in November. In doing so, the company has handled virtually every aspect of the cabin completion: design engineering, vendor coordination, outsourcing for cabin components, and assembly of crews to manage the installation work in Bangkok.

EAS is currently negotiating for four more interior completion projects–two Boeing 767s, an Airbus A340 and a Boeing 737. The company has also established “alliance” agreements with widebody interior completion specialist King Aerospace in Addison, Texas.

Waypoint Partners finished its first airplane, a Global Express by Savannah Air Center, last year. “We’ve been pleasantly surprised at the interest shown in Waypoint,” said cofounder Michael Sowa, adding that the Atlanta-based firm is negotiating for three more interiors projects. The company was launched in March last year by Sowa, Kenneth Murray and Robert Liddell. The trio collectively claims more than 75 years of experience in the business aviation industry. Sowa had previously worked on Bombardier Challenger interiors for the former KC Aviation center, and Murray, he said, has been involved in the pre-purchase inspection, new completion and refurbishment of more than 100 aircraft. Liddell’s experience has been primarily in business aviation management, including for a Fortune 500 flight department.

Waypoint has also begun to add complementary services. “Not too long ago, we had a request from a customer who wanted our help in acquiring an airplane. Our first thought was that we’re not brokers, but we’ve decided that if this is what our customers expect, this is what we’ll do.”

Big Body Airplanes Mean Bigger Profits

Placing an emphasis on widebody interiors appears to make sense. “I can handle two or three big airplane projects a year,” explained Aces’ Artinger. It would require managing interior completions on five or six smaller business jets in a year to maintain the same profit margin.

Emery noted that a movement in recent years by aircraft manufacturers toward “standardized” interiors offers a new challenge to independent interiors management representatives. “It’s a matter of finding ways for the owner to personalize those standardized interiors and at the same time minimize the additional cost and minimize disruption of the completion center’s operation.”

Are some interior management specialists better than others? “Of course,” said one independent completion shop manager, who noted that while some are a pleasure to work with and earn their keep, “there are some [individuals] whose credentials and experience are questionable.”

In response to customer inquiries, Waypoint has also included flight department assessment and review as part of its repertoire. “Our team has in-depth experience in this area, so we decided it made sense for us to fill this market need as well. It all contributes to our goal as a horizontally aligned company,” said Sowa.

Taking it a step further, it’s important for an owner to do some homework when hiring an independent interior management specialist to act on his behalf during the process. Some completion centers and manufacturers–such as Boeing Business Jets–might offer a list of such agents with whom they’ve worked successfully in the past.

In any case, as it does in almost any business transaction, the ancient Latin warning caveat emptor applies–“Let the buyer beware.”