As sales of new civil rotorcraft improve and bargains for used equipment rise, so too does the need for new and refurbished cabin interiors for business/corporate, VIP and VVIP helicopters.
“We are no longer in the 1980s and 1990s when the civil helicopter was mostly a short-haul utility transport,” said Armando Sassoli, co-general manager for Mecaer Aviation Group. “The market demand for a more personalized helicopter has pushed the OEMs [and independent completion houses] to design interiors for these VIP helicopters.”
As manufacturers, operators and suppliers prepare for the National Business Aviation Association’s annual trade show (Oct. 10 to 12 in Las Vegas), we sized up the market for aircraft completions in that market segment. (Visit us at Booth N3436.)
Mecaer is considered the Alpha of completion houses because of its Italian style, its close relationship with several OEMs and its well-heeled customers worldwide. Years ago, the company made a conscious decision to be based in Dallas, close to Bell Helicopter and Airbus Helicopters.
Mecaer is known mainly as an interior designer and installer of VIP- and VVIP-configured helicopters and is OEMs’ factory option for standard, air medical and VIP-configured rotorcraft.
Its interior configurator application iPad app is capable of roughing out a design during initial meetings with a prospective customer.
Mecaer’s MAGnificent luxury interior is offered on the twin-engine Bell 525 and other equipment. The in-house MAG Design Studio provides customers with multiple options for helicopter interiors. They include the proprietary In-Flight Entertainment Enhanced Lounge (I-FEEL) with Wi-Fi, moving map display and other features, plus Electro-Chromic Window Controls to help control temperature in the cabin.
Mecaer also offers its proprietary Sound Intensity Level Enhanced Noise System (SILENS), a passive system that reduces cabin noise to a level where headsets are not needed for communication between passengers.
“Our Bell 429 interior is the quietest in the world,” said Paul Schaaf, director of flight operations and pilot for an investment company based in the Northern Virginia technology corridor. He described SILENS as a “significant leap in cabin technology.” Noise-cancelling headsets are only necessary for listening to music or watching movies, he said.
Schaaf said the company has operated its VVIP-configured Bell 429 with the MAGnificent interior since September 2016. That aircraft is a combined personal and business tool, flying twice a week between Washington Dulles International Airport and one of three New York City heliports.
Ivor Shier, co-owner of San Diego-based Corporate Helicopters, believes the interiors business “is going the way of the automotive industry,” he said. “We multi-task with some of these (business/utility) helicopters. Our AStars are fairly modular and we can replace whatever utility seating in around 20 minutes.” Corporate Helicopters’ A-Stars are equipped with leather seats, air conditioning, extra baggage pods and Bose noise-cancelling headsets. The company’s comprehensive business includes helicopter tours, utility projects, aerial filming and cinematography, and charters.
United Kingdom-based Farnborough Aircraft Interiors has designed numerous corporate and VIP interiors on various models, mainly for European operators. Asked what most customers want in interiors, Managing Director Stewart Macrae said most customers want “a high-end contemporary feel to the cabin with durability in mind.” Must-have items include an IFE system, power plugs for tablets and charging facilities, along with noise-reducing headsets and upgraded upholstery.
Crashworthy 16G seats and the introduction of IFE systems to helicopter cabins have been the biggest additions in rotorcraft interiors, said Macrae. For now, outfitting business/corporate
interiors remains the lion share of Farnborough Aircraft’s business. The VIP/VVIP is a niche market, but it is expected to grow, he said.
The OEMs do a fair amount of outfitting of new VIP and VVIP rotorcraft. Thierry Roman, in charge of the cabin interiors and VIP unit in Marignane, said on Airbus’ website that the OEM can “fulfill 80% of the requests it receives” for interior options. For the rest, “we can always find suitable customization solutions.” Roman said there are three cabin configurations for the EC155. Airbus also can design a wide range of luxury interiors for the EC175, including VIP and executive ones.
Airbus Helicopters is working with Pegasus Design to create a new standard of VIP cabin interiors for the H160 medium-lift helicopter unveiled at Heli-Expo in March 2015. Airbus also selected Pegasus to design the H175’s VIP cabin interiors. The H160 is the newest addition to the Airbus H generation of rotorcraft earmarked for the offshore, business and private aviation sectors.
Other manufacturers offer similar interior customization packages in house or with OEM-approved independent interior designers and installers, R&WI found.
North American operators looking to upgrade interiors of their new or used helicopters — and to keep costs down — might look toward the smaller completion houses. These outfitters include Acadiana Aircraft Interiors, a relatively new Lafayette, Louisiana-based interiors completion house owned and operated by Angella Adams and Kent Richard.
Elsewhere, there is: Custom Aircraft Interiors of Lakewood, California; American Aircraft Interiors of Carlsbad, California; Buchanan Aviation Services, Concord, California; Aviation Creations, a Scottsdale, Arizona interiors company; and Aero Aviation Company of Broussard, Louisiana.
Having a quiet helicopter interior is a top priority of VIP and VVIP customers particularly, but the concept is making headway with the more utilitarian-minded operators of corporate rotorcraft. Most larger twin-engine helicopters today have an active vibration control system, which are better than the passive Frahms or tuned vibration absorbers of the past.
Active vibration control involves measuring the vibration in the helicopter cabin, then inputting a counter-vibration to the structure using force generators. The result is lower aircraft
vibration and cabin noise. The technology has matured significantly in the past decade as force generators have become more powerful and lighter, with today’s systems being able to accommodate changes in rotor speed.
Lord Corp. is a leader in this area, with 14 commercial helicopter models featuring its Active Vibration Control Systems, said Scott Miller, rotary-wing global marketing manager. As of March 2017, such systems operating worldwide have achieved 2 million flight hours.
All such Lord systems are in the helicopter interior, but there are vibration-reducing systems under development that would have components outside the cabin. Future systems would be near the gearbox or the rotor head and could work in tandem with the cabin system, said Miller. He offered no word on when such systems would come to the market.
As for specific, standalone noise-cancelling systems, the technology does not exist for rotorcraft apparently. Noise in helicopters is typically at the very low frequencies, to which the human ear is not sensitive, or very high frequencies, which are technically difficult to cancel, said Miller.
Noise-cancelling technology exists for fixed-wing turboprop-powered equipment. Elliot Aviation, a full-service aviation company based in Moline, Illinois, is outfitting all Beechcraft King Air 350s with an Ultra Electronics active noise control system. The system uses 24 hidden microphones, a central processor and 12 disguised speakers to generate “anti-noise.”
Not all helicopter interior outfitting for business, VIP and VVIP involves new helicopters. “The majority of our business lately has been used aircraft that have been brought to us to be repurposed,” said Milton Geltz, managing director of Shreveport, Louisiana-based Metro Aviation. “Prices for used equipment are down, and it is more economical to find gently used helicopters and reconfigure them.”
Several used helicopters have come from operators serving the offshore oil and gas businesses. For these jobs, Metro removes the floats, yanks out the seats, floor and walls, and installs an EMS, corporate or VIP interior with leather or high-end fabric seats and amenities.
One Metro customer is having its Airbus H125 AStar reconfigured for VIP law enforcement, said Geltz, while another VVIP customer is matching its rotorcraft’s interior to the company’s corporate jet and includes several amenities.
For the budget-minded helicopter operator that wants a VIP-like interior, Metro offers water-transfer-printing technology. The emersion printing process makes it possible to decorate plastic, metal, machined goods, glass, wood and other surfaces with natural wood grains, burl woods, carbon fiber, marble and other patterns.
Geltz, a long-time veteran of the completion business, noticed a desire among today’s corporate operators to keep interiors as standard and as understated as possible for better resale value. Much of the expense of re-purposing a corporate helicopter is the removal of the previous interior.
Waypoint Leasing, which has 150 helicopters of varying sizes in its portfolio, believes less is more in interiors. “The resale value of VIP-configured aircraft on the market can be cost-prohibitive,” said David Gorsky, SVP of operations and technical for Waypoint. “When a VIP operator is configuring its aircraft, it prefers to design the aesthetics of the interior to match its taste or corporate color scheme. Repurposing that customized interior can be difficult and very costly for the next owner of that aircraft.”
Gorsky said it was not unusual to spend $1 million reconfiguring interiors from VIP to business/utility transport configuration in 120 days, a relatively quick turnaround by industry standards.
There are interiors products that operators of corporate/business, VIP and VVIP helicopters might want to consider.
Zurich-based RUAG Aviation is developing an STC-certified solution for new 4G LTE connectivity experience for the VVIP helicopter market.
The STC is based on employing the same architecture in the helicopter cabin that is used for today’s 4G LTE broadband technologies. STC development cites the Leonardo AW109. Yet the solution can be easily adapted for other platforms as well, according to RUAG.
“Our customer approached us with the request for an in-flight helicopter cabin solution allowing them to have the same access to smartphone connectivity as they do when they are on the ground,” said Philippe Niquille, who leads the Helicopter Cabin Interiors Center of Excellence at RUAG.
Requirements for the solution include instant messaging, video calling, full social media interaction, live streaming and fast internet searches.
“Traditionally, helicopter cabin interior connectivity has been coupled with costly, bulky and cumbersome satellite communications systems. Now customers have the potential to experience twice as fast and reliable connection at a significantly lower operating cost,” added Niquille.
Honeywell’s Aspire 200 Wi-Fi system and GoDirect Cabin Connectivity services connected a Bell 429 on an around-the-world flight in July. This milestone demonstrated the viability for the product to be installed in the cabins of corporate-, VIP- and VVIP-configured rotorcraft.
Honeywell said it has “numerous customers of the Aspire 200 system,” including a Fortune 500 corporate flight department in the New York City area, using the system on its AW139 to keep executives connected back to their offices.
Astronics Custom Control Concepts is known for its SkyOne VIP helicopter IFE and cabin management systems, which include cabin audio and video, intercom and internal lighting systems. The Kent, Washington, company has outfitted VIP/VVIP rotorcraft interiors with integrated cabin management, IFE and wireless headset systems. Interior work has been done on Sikorsky helicopters and Leonardo AW139s, AW189s and others.
Clients include Fortune 500 companies and heads of state in the Middle East. The head of state contracts are linked typically to outfitting of the fixed-wing VIP corporate aircraft.
Russ Johnson, CTO of the Astronics unit, said helicopter cabin work is a small percentage of the company’s business, but he expects growth in this sector once the prices of oil and gas rise.
Outfitting VIP and VVIP interiors remains a niche market, but that niche is growing exponentially because of a desire by operators to have their helicopters be more than aerial shuttles. In addition, the repurposing of rotorcraft interiors once used for the oil and gas business is for now another area of opportunity for completion houses.
Which is What?
Defining what constitutes a business/corporate, VIP or VVIP interior can be challenging.
“There are no hard lines between [them],” said Grayson Barrows, director of marketing and sales, cabin comfort systems at Mecaer Aviation Group. “It’s a fuzzy area.”
A business/corporate interior might be suitable for an organization using helicopters as shuttle tools for corporate executives or workers. Most times such an aircraft flies for a Part 135 charter operation. The interior is a level up from the standard cabin configuration. An operator might want an upgraded interior, but not all the amenities that would add cost to the operation.
A VIP-configured rotorcraft will likely have a plush interior, plus some kind of infotainment system. It also is likely to have some kind of vibration and noise-reduction system. The quality of the carpet and seating is a step up from the corporate interiors. Fine leather seats and embroidery is not uncommon along with some identity plating in the cabin.
VVIP interiors go even further, with the items above as well as added top-dollar amenities for mid-size twins and large ones, such as the Sikorsky S-92, Airbus H225 and the Leonardo AW101.
“We have put showers, bidets, toilets, sinks, kitchens and wet bars in helicopters,” said Barrows. Some Mecaer VVIP clients want solid gold embroidery on the passenger service units, the air gaspers and the plating around the reading lights. “For VVIP interiors, it is limited to the owner/operator’s imagination,” he added.
Adding this much equipment to the interior makes for a heavier helicopter. In their proposals, Mecaer and other interior design houses inform the client how much weight would be added to the rotorcraft along with the reduction in range capability. RWI