Interior shops claim vendors unconcerned

 - January 14, 2008, 5:36 AM

“They’ve forgotten us,” said Victor Guzman, owner and president of GZM Aircraft Interiors, a small independent completion and refurb shop based at Executive Airport in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “They,” he explained, are a growing number of vendors who typically provide cabin interior components to independent (non-OEM) completion and refurb centers such as his.

“We recently had a major seat manufacturer that flatly refused to provide support in terms of existing seats they built and for which they were granted the TSO,” said Guzman. “This put me in the position of having to tell my customer that not only would they not take the seats back and repair them, they would not provide the TSO engineering specs and parts to allow me to make the repairs.” They were an independent vendor. Now they’re part of a much larger company, and I guess their business is building new seats.”

In another instance, he said, one of his engineers completed a design project based on assurances from a manufacturer of video monitors, only to be told after GZM had finished the design and engineering that the line had been discontinued. “So we had to start over. You can bet we didn’t go back to the same vendor.”

The problem, according to Guzman, is that many of the best known vendors have been acquired and absorbed in recent years by larger companies, such as B/E Aerospace, DeCrane Aircraft and Nordam. As part of a much larger company, promoting itself as a one-stop shop for a complete line of aircraft cabin components, he said, “They’re becoming so focused on big contracts from the OEMs to do entire cabins for entire aircraft lines that they’re no longer interested in the smaller, aftermarket business.”

Nor is Guzman’s the only similar complaint. “It’s happening with all the vendors,” said Robert Roth, v-p of Global Aircraft Interiors in Ronkonkoma, N.Y. “They’re all doing OEM work. We have trouble just getting somebody to respond to a telephone call.”

Roth said he had recently contacted a vendor for seats to meet the requirements of a Gulfstream refurb and was told that delivery would take 65 days. “I’m not talking about a one-off custom seat, but an off-the-rack standard seat. We were told, ‘Take it or leave it.’”

The smaller completion and refurb centers are not the only ones encountering the problem. Patrick Altuna, executive v-p of Associated Air Center at Dallas Love Field, said that even though his facility does comparatively greater volume and larger airplanes, “The reaction by some of the vendors seems to be that they are so busy filling orders for Cessna and Bombardier that they just don’t have time for the smaller orders. We do bigger airplanes “but apparently we’re just not what they consider a volume market.

“A few years ago,” said Altuna, “it was easy just to pick up the telephone and call the owner of ERDA or Dettmers [seat manufacturers] and the response was instant. Now they’ve been gobbled up by DeCrane, and when we call, all we get is an answering machine. We’re lucky if anyone even calls back.”

“You can’t blame it on the economy,” said Karin Tennstedt, president of Mach 1 Systems, a Little Rock, Ark.-based interior consulting firm. “I was hearing these stories long before the economy began going south.”

Tennstedt chaired an aircraft interiors round table discussion at last fall’s NBAA Convention in Orlando, Fla., and recalls a perceived lack of vendor response as having spurred a spirited discussion by owners of independent completion and refurb shops. “They were not just upset,” said Tennstedt. “They were angry. Some of them went so far as to say they felt like they’d been held hostage by the vendor.”

Mark Krosney, v-p of B/E Aerospace Business Jet Group, was adamant in his assurance that B/E has not written off the smaller independent shops as clients. “In today’s economy, I can assure you that we do not turn down business.”

He said 30 percent of B/E’s interiors business is from independent completion and refurb centers. Krosney added, “Our telephones are manned from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., we routinely get back to a customer within a day and we try to ensure that a customer deals with the same B/E representative from start to finish.”

He also noted, “We’re filling seat orders for custom seats on a 45-day cycle with better than a 98-percent on-time-delivery rate.”

DeCrane Aircraft is the parent company of DeCrane Aircraft Seating, a division created earlier this year following the acquisition of independent seating specialists Dettmers and ERDA.

Jeff Nerland, senior v-p of DeCrane Aircraft and president of the Cabin Management Group, told AIN that following acquisition of some companies, DeCrane had discovered prior problems with late deliveries. “One company was delivering about 75 percent of its orders late,” he said. “We have taken care of that problem and now less than one percent of the deliveries are late.” And he added that custom seat orders are being delivered within 30 to 45 days.

Nerland also pointed out that larger organizations tend to be “more disciplined,” in no small part as a result of tighter FAA scrutiny.

“In fairness,” said Jeff Kennedy of CompletionAir in St. Louis, “the FAA has tightened guidelines. Not too long ago the FAA actually halted all shipments from a major window manufacturer because of a paperwork discrepancy. And it’s taking longer and costing more to get FAA approvals for new products.”

Perhaps a more important and growing perception among independent completion and refurb shops is that the larger parent companies, which now own many of the top vendors of interior components, are becoming competitors.

A spokesman for B/E Aerospace denied that B/E is in the business of both building the components and installing them. The company does build an entire kit made up of interior components for the Challenger, which it actively markets. But Krosney pointed out that the company does not install the kits. “We clearly try to stay in the business of supplying components. We are not in the completion business.”

DeCrane, however, has recently moved into the business of interior completions, with delivery of a Boeing Business Jet from its Delaware-based PATS facility. “DeCrane is not winning any friends by going into direct competition with its clients,” said one independent shop executive. “Maybe if you’re a little refurb shop doing Cessna refurbs, it’s not a problem. But if you’re a larger completion and refurb center whose major market is big aircraft completion work, it’s definitely not a comfortable situation when the company you’re buying seats from is in direct competition with you.”

According to DeCrane’s Nerland, “We have resisted and continue to resist becoming a competitor.” Nerland said DeCrane went into completion and refurb installation work on only a limited basis after Boeing approached the company in early 2000. At that time, he explained, Boeing was concerned with the lack of green completion capacity and consequent delays in completion of Boeing Business Jet interiors. Since then, the PATS facility has finished one green BBJ interior and completed a minor interior refurb job on another. Work was expected to begin on a second green BBJ interior early this year.

Nevertheless, Nerland insisted, “We do this only on a very limited basis. We are sticking mainly to the auxiliary fuel tank business.” DeCrane installs auxiliary fuel tanks on BBJs at the PATS facility.

Just how big are these parent companies that have been gobbling up smaller independent vendors?

Since 1998, B/E Aerospace of Miami has acquired C.F. Taylor Interiors, a major provider of galley structures and equipment; SMR Aerospace, a specialist in interior modification and reconfiguration; Aircraft Modular Products, a major provider of seating and cabinetry; and Puritan-Bennett Aero Systems. In an August report of the expansion of its product line, B/E was described as “the world’s leading manufacturer of aircraft cabin interior products, and a leading aftermarket distributor of aircraft component parts.”

In the past several years DeCrane Aircraft has acquired nearly a dozen independent interior component manufacturers. In an effort to build itself into “the largest manufacturer of cabin systems and components for corporate, VIP and head-of-state aircraft,” the Segundo, Calif. company offers what it describes as “total cabin capability.” Among the companies it has absorbed are Audio International, a manufacturer of audio and video equipment, passenger control panels and switches and lighting; Avtech, a maker of audio communication systems; ERDA and Dettmers, seating specialists; and Hollingsead International, provider  of in-flight entertainment systems. It has acquired no fewer than four companies specializing in interior cabinetry, including Carl F. Booth & Co., Infinity Partners, Precision Pattern and Custom Woodwork & Plastics.

Nordam, with headquarters in Tulsa, Okla., is home to Nordam Interiors & Structures Division, which it describes as providing “complete aircraft interiors and interior components for the general aviation, business aviation and commercial and military markets.” It also purchased business aircraft interior cabinetry specialist Bomhoff last April.

What does all this mean for the owners and operators of aircraft going into an independent shop for a cabin completion or refurbishment? Possibly nothing.
On the other hand, said Tennstedt, “Delays resulting from the lack of response by vendors are inevitably going to mean delays in completion of the project, and that is going to mean higher costs in terms of the job itself, and lost revenue as a result of the aircraft being out of service longer.”

Some owners and operators of independent completion and refurb centers are convinced that the situation will improve only if both the centers and the vendors want it to improve. They cite a need for better response from vendors, and a need for better communication on the part of both buyers and vendors. In the meantime, said CompletionAir’s  Kennedy, “There are some good vendors, and if we continue seeing a lack of response by the others, startup competitors are going to jump into the market. A little competition never hurts.”

Jim Harrison at Jet Aviation is of the same opinion: “At the NBAA round table we pretty much agreed that if it doesn’t change, we’re going to have to start looking toward smaller independent vendors as a solution.”