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Flying in an airplane used to be like being suspended in a cocoon.
While life happened on the ground, passengers were decidedly cut off while in transit. Wrapped in sunny seclusion high above the clouds, they were resigned to the fact that the world just had to wait.
But that was then, and it’s a very different story now.
As technology has marched ever forward, aircraft have grown increasingly connected. Nowadays, the commercial business traveller need only plug in a USB cable or download an airline app to stay charged up and connected.
But in business and private aviation, where connectivity is tantamount to productivity, customers want seamless communication–even at 40,000 feet in the air.
Welcome to your flying office. Did we mention it comes with all the comforts of home?
Individuality is not optional
“The last thing anyone wants to hear when it comes to their business aircraft is ‘standard’ or ‘option.’ They want us to assess their needs and nice-to-haves and build around them,” said Gabor Hasko, vice-president of program management and design at Flying Colours Corp., in Peterborough, Ont.
Established in 1989, Flying Colours specializes in interior completions for brand new “green” aircraft, as well as custom refurbishment of existing cabins.
Hasko said today’s business aircraft users are looking for three things: connectivity, comfort and fine dining.
“Customers want to walk from their car and onto the plane with seamless connectivity. Whether it’s business or pleasure, they want multiple people to be able to walk on board and stay connected. And they want to be able to control everything in the cabin with their smartphones.”
He said Ka band satellite technology–billed as the fastest Internet connection worldwide–is the most popular option for achieving reliable in-air service that is on par with ground-based connections.
Comfort-wise, business jet interiors are leaning towards bolder, more personal touches that showcase fluid, organic lines. Textures, satin finishes and lighter woods–often offset by darker metallic embellishments–are becoming more prevalent.
“We have recently seen requests for wood in non-traditional colours, for example grey and grey-blues,” confirmed Hasko. “We are seeing a lot of stone veneer, and some are choosing hardwood flooring versus stone flooring.”
Corporate aircraft often feature company logos etched or embossed in glassware, seats or bulkheads.
Heated floors, Corian countertops, new appliances for the galley (think convection and steam ovens instead of microwaves), layered LED cabin lighting and ultra-comfortable seating are just some of the additional trends inspired by the comforts of home.
When it comes to the interior design of an aircraft that will serve as the natural extension of home and office, an objective evaluation is a must.
For 15 years, Kimberly Kohnert has worked with clients from all over the world to help navigate the daunting process of refurbishing their aircraft. Today, she is president of Platinum Jet Corporation, a Clinton, Ont.-based provider of professional aviation services, including interior design as well as maintenance, avionics and paint program management.
A weekly business traveller, Kohnert firmly believes it’s necessary to visit clients to accurately assess their needs.
“When a client acquires a new aircraft or wants to update the one they have, we visit them and view the aircraft to discuss their vision. What functionality and look do they want?”
From there, Kohnert’s team puts together three conceptual designs for the client to review. Technology has certainly helped this process come a long way.
“When I first started in the industry, we’d have to build a mockup which was time consuming and costly–and honestly, not very realistic,” she said. “Our design options have come a long way since then. From the approved conceptual design, we’ll digitally render the whole interior based on our ideation sketches. A lot of the business clients want to see what they’ll be getting before the completion centre starts the work, and renderings are a good way to do that.
“Nowadays, you can see extreme details, such as stitch lines and even sunlight coming through the windows. We can also do a VR (virtual reality) tour–with VR headset on in our studio.”
Kohnert often works with Bombardier and Embraer aircraft, including CRJ200 and ERJ135/145 lease returns coming back from airlines.
“They make fantastic corporate and business aircraft at a fraction of the price. It’s always fun to take an airliner and see the before and after photos.”
Generally, she said her customers are becoming much more aware of the long-term value in completing the aircraft to the best certification standards, including fire, smoke and toxicity (FST) guidelines for all materials going into the plane.
“For some owners it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, but it’s huge on the design side. If it needs to meet FST, we need to find naturally-sourced fibres and make sure a material will pass before presenting it as an option. A lot of vendors supplying materials for interior completions are now providing beautiful, textured materials that meet the FST requirements.”
Kohnert said the sky’s the limit in terms of choosing interior design components.
“For example, flooring is an area with fantastic new choices. I’m currently working with a company that has a magnetic flooring product that you install over a special sub-floor. It’s watertight, lightweight and maintenance-friendly. The long-term value is fantastic.”
She agreed that texture is becoming more prevalent, and she incorporates several different metals into her designs, in a variety of patinas. As for colour, Kohnert said owners have migrated away from browns and tans and moved toward grey tones and even light, creamy shades.
Cabinetry and flat finishes can now take on virtually any look through hydrographic water transfer technology, where 3D objects or monument panels are dipped into a printed film floating in a tank of water. Once the film adhesion process is complete, a clear coat is applied to protect the finish.
“Passengers, owners and operators are definitely looking for the creature comforts of home,” said Kohnert. “Mood lighting is highly important in design–from sunrise to sunset effects–and everything in between. LED lighting technology has advanced to the point that it can be programmed to be the exact Pantone colour of a company logo.
“Interiors are definitely becoming more customized. It’s all about creating that functional, yet highly personalized space.”
At James T. Field Memorial Aerodrome in Centralia, Ont., New United Goderich is also reinventing the regional airliner.
Luc Massé, the head of marketing and sales, said the company’s 110 employees have delivered several complete aircraft refurbishments, performing in-house upholstery, cabinet and exterior finishing work.
“There continues to be a demand for conversions,” he said. “There has been a resurgence in the past couple of years. We are converting out of service [Bombardier] CRJs into 15-passenger VIP aircraft. We have completed two so far, with two more in the works, where everything except the composite side panels was done in-house.”
While New United Goderich tends to be best known for its aircraft paint shop, Massé said it has much more to offer. For example, the company has also converted ERJ135 airliners into 30-seat business-class aircraft, where a completely new shell kit is installed, seats are completely refurbished, bins are removed, lavatories are revamped and a Gogo Wi-Fi system is installed.
Customers are moving away from high-gloss finishes in favour of a more satiny look. He, too, mentioned hydrographic applications for hard surfaces, adding that since the finish is essentially inked on, it allows the material to pass smoke and heat release requirements.
Light, neutral colours are preferred and full connectivity is a must, with features from the home carried through to the aircraft.
“A lot of the customers we’ve dealt with have been more North American-based. So we’ve installed many Gogo Wi-Fi systems. Also, everyone is looking to control the whole cabin with their iPad or iPhone. We accommodate this with the installation of Honeywell’s Ovation CMS [cabin management system].”
Massé sees lots of potential in business aircraft completions and conversions, noting that “the accessibility of business aviation will continue through different ownership models, including fractional ownership and numerous charter programs, etc.”
Beyond the galley
Montreal-based MSB Design engineers and manufactures specialty interior components for business and VIP aircraft.
The company’s uplit glass racks–first introduced at the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) exhibition in 2017–were selected by Gulfstream for its new G500 and G600 aircraft. MSB is also well known for its custom crystal, china and flatware inserts, as well as its single, dual, or quadruple-pedestal adjustable conference tables.
Shannon Gill, managing director, said there is a huge demand for customization throughout the aircraft. The company’s designers are now stretching their creativity beyond the galley.
“One of the things we have been doing is the outfitting of the mid-cabin, where customers are looking for things that make you feel you’re in a living room,” she said. “We are seeing a trend to keep comfort closer at hand.”
MSB has been asked to design mini bars in credenzas as well as customized lavatory components. The company is also investigating adjustable coloured lighting and is continuing its work on wireless charging units embedded into conference tables, in keeping with customers’ desire to keep technology close.
Over the last eight months or so, Gill said she has also noted a shift in the preferred colour palette for business aircraft interiors.
“We used to have demand for gold; rose gold. We’re seeing a change now to black onyx, gunmetal grey and cool tones. We’re seeing more hammered metals and darker metal plating, with cooler hues.”
While Platinum Jet Corporation and MSB Design indicated they have game-changing new interior products in development, others predicted exciting trends for the future of private aircraft design.
“I read recently that windowless fuselages or cabins could be a future trend, where you can select panoramic views via your smartphone. Similarly, like a sunroof in a car, passengers could be sitting down and looking at a virtual sky or otherwise on the headline,” said Flying Colours’ Hasko.
Voice-activated devices, lit flooring, and window shades that darken by touch (already found on commercial aircraft) may all be coming to a private jet near you, as technology continues to enable even the wildest possibilities.
Enhancing the “ownership experience”
Even well-known names like Versace, Armani and Mercedes Benz are designing private aircraft interiors, with each taking the uber-luxury concept to new heights. And their innovations aren’t limited to fixed-wing aircraft.
Airbus Helicopters Canada of Fort Erie, Ont., collaborates with Mercedes Benz and Hermès to develop customized luxury interiors for its new H125, H130, H135, H145, H160 and H175 helicopter models. The manufacturer’s corporate helicopter division has launched a customized “ownership experience” program that addresses even the smallest detail.
“Designing an interior solution for private business aviation is a very personalized experience,” said Nicolas Pignol, head of Aircraft Operation/Program, Airbus Helicopters Canada.
“As a result, we have had some really beautiful leather interiors crafted at the Airbus Helicopters facility in Fort Erie. We have also had the opportunity to deliver multiple private aircraft that have been outfitted with an interior mirroring a customer’s luxury vehicle.”
He said some of the most popular helicopter interior options include high-visibility windows, cargo pods for additional storage capacity, and customizable seat configurations.
Private helicopter owners are also looking for the latest in cockpit technology.
“Our private customers are always extremely pleased to learn that the avionics packages that come standard in our aircraft are fitted with the latest technology available,” continued Pignol. “One of the more popular safety features that increasingly interests our private customers is the traffic advisory system (TAS), designed to improve flight safety by assisting pilots in detecting and avoiding aircraft intersecting their flight path.
“This, in addition to the increasingly popular integration of the Bose sound system, makes for an exceedingly pleasant flying experience.”
The National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) annual convention and exhibition–held this year in Orlando, Fla., from Oct. 16 to 18–is often the launching ground for the latest and greatest business aviation innovations. With 1,100 exhibitors, 100 aircraft on static display, and more than 25,000 industry professionals expected to attend, it’s a good place to look for the newest innovations in private jet interior design.