In the lap of luxury: how the elements of private aviation have made it boom during Covid-19

As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the private aviation sector is booming. Melissa Moody explores this growing industry and the elements that make it so appealing in the current climate

This piece first appeared in the May/June issue of Aircraft Cabin Management, you can read the full magazine here. 

In the first half of March, WingX insight revealed that activity within the private aviation sector in the US was at its highest since the pandemic began, a trend that doesn’t look as though it will abate any time soon. 

“Private aircraft function as offices in the sky. The value of private aviation has become even clearer as a secure, safe, point-to-point mode of executive transport,” explains Jarid King, president of business jet services company King Aerospace. 

According to WingX’s weekly global market tracker, business aviation activity worldwide is holding and is down by just two per cent on the same period last year. This is compared to a 38 per cent drop in global airline activity for the first two weeks of March. 

The tracker found that the US charter market continues to be buoyant; up to the anniversary of the lockdowns, branded charter operators in the US have increased by three per cent so far in 2021. Entry level and very light jets have shown very strong growth this year, up by 20 per cent. The report also notes that midsize and super midsize jet flight hours are up close to 10 per cent compared to the pre-pandemic period. 

Textron Aviation, a manufacturer of general and business aviation aircraft, says that while deliveries had an industry-wide drop in 2020, it has seen an increase in new customers looking into the business aviation sector whilst commercial travel has been limited. 

With safety still at the top of the list, and commercial aviation finding its way back, private jets appear to be the current travel mode of choice and many individuals and companies are able to choose or even customise services and jets that meet their specific needs – a luxury not usually available on commercial aircraft. 

“Private aviation offers a more personalised and individual experience for aircraft owners and passengers and gives travellers the flexibility to fly on their own schedules,” says Textron Aviation’s senior vice-president of customer experience Christi Tannahill. 

The company recently rolled out the Refresh Collection, a series of aftermarket upgrades to its cabin interior services, thereby giving its customers the flexibility to modify their aircraft to “best suit their need and optimise their flying experience.” 

King agrees, noting that personalised modifications are one of the most appealing aspects of privation aviation for many people. “Refurbishment is increasingly seen as a way to future-proof aircraft. Owners and managers of VVIP Boeing Business Jets (BBJ), Gulfstream, Falcon, Global Express and Learjet aircraft have ever-increasing expectations for the flight experience.”

Keeping connected 

Inflight connectivity has become an essential tick-box for anyone looking to use business jets. “The C-suite passengers on these aircraft will not accept wifi speeds and performance that doesn’t match what they enjoy on the ground,” King explains. As a result, his company is installing more air-to-ground (ATG) solutions for “excellent, but value-priced” service over the ground. For long-range transatlantic flights, it also outfits aircraft with satellite for areas over water with little to no ATG coverage. 

Textron’s Refresh Collection also offers enhanced in-flight connectivity options such as voice, data and national or global coverage, in addition to choices for USB charging ports and LED lighting upgrades.

California-based DPI Labs has recognised the desire for technology and has announced the availability of its new 4K ultra-high definition (UHD), slim, ultra-lightweight, organic light-emitting diode (OLED) displays for business and VVIP aircraft cabins (pictured below).

Branded DPI SmartCanvas, the 55‑inch and 65-inch OLED cabin displays have the ability to operate with a bend radius of one metre either horizontally or vertically, allowing them to conform to curved surfaces such as headliners and sidewalls.

Unlike LED technology, OLEDs have self-illuminating pixels and do not require the extra physical layers inside the display for backlighting that LED monitors do. This makes OLED displays much thinner, lighter and allows for infinite contrast ratio and a wide viewing angle.

For comparison, a typical 65-inch aircraft display using LED technology weighs about 75 pounds (34 Kg) and is about two inches (50.8 mm) thick, whereas DPI’s 65-inch OLED display weighs in at just 24 pounds (10.89 Kg) and is only 0.36 inches (9 mm) thick. 

The displays’ low weights and shallow depths have other impacts on cabin design and overall aircraft weight, as Scott DeSmet, DPI’s vice-president of business development and sales explains. 

“Historically, in order to install screens this large using LED technology, the bulkhead would have had to be modified and significantly reinforced structurally to support the excessive mass. This adds even more overall aircraft weight and takes up additional cabin space. 

“With our OLED displays, we’re able to flush-mount them into a standard bulkhead, displacing bulkhead weight and material and take up zero cabin space. These are rare win-wins for our industry when we can both greatly enhance the passenger experience and reduce weight and installation time and cost.”

But it’s not just in the cabin that technology innovations are becoming essential; cockpit avionics upgrades are also high in demand, notes King. “Without getting too technical, these systems help aircraft get in and out of airports safely and efficiently using direct data-link communication with air traffic control. They reduce pilot workload, improve awareness of other aircraft and hazardous terrain, and enable aircraft to broadcast their position and identification to ATC and other aircraft.” 

He says that customers need to be compliant with NextGen advancements, but they are also realising the real benefits technologies deliver. “They don’t want to be without them.” 

Designing opulence

Of course, it is not only the technology on offer that private aviation customers are concerned with. If they’re paying for the premium service a business jet offers, they want the entire interior to reflect that. 

“We’ve done some out-there, highly creative interiors that reflect owners’ private tastes,” says King. But bespoke projects are considered atypical. As so-called ‘big-ticket’ items, VVIP aircraft tend to be conservative and timeless with neutral tones, subtle patterns and luxury materials and finishes. 

“We are seeing a move toward looks formerly more associated with high-end automobiles,” notes King. “This gets expressed in sleeker seats, textured bulkheads, carbon-fibre composite elements, subtle LED lighting, supple stitched leathers and beautifully veneered cabinetry.” 

Tannahill agrees with this assessment, adding that the Refresh Collection allows its customers to choose from woodwork, leather, veneers or custom materials to match their own preferences and “maximise passenger comfort.” 

“Our designers guide customers on selections based on their operational needs and aesthetic vision. Although safety and cleanability discussions are routine, the added assurance on this benefit will likely be of interest to new and returning customers.” 

Collins Aerospace Systems also identified the trend for the finer touches on business jets, launching PrecisionPlank (pictured below), what it calls a “next-generation, environmentally-friendly lumber alternative” that provides accurate colour-matching to wood veneers for business jets.

“Today’s methods of matching lumber materials to existing aircraft veneers is time consuming, expensive and, at times, wasteful,” says Ian Webb, Collins Aerospace’s vice-president of business development. “With PrecisionPlank we are able to provide the exact board required to match the chosen veneer.”

Exact board matching is achieved using PrecisionPlank’s proprietary method of spacing the board’s wood grain to replicate the grain of the chosen veneer. Additionally, Webb explains that the board is free from the knots, defects and colour variance commonly found in raw lumber.

“Typically, cabinet shops spend an incredible amount of time milling down raw lumber in the hopes of finding an exact board match. The amount of wasted lumber and man hours is enormous,” observes Webb. “We’re thrilled to eliminate that guesswork and give our customers a more environmentally sustainable alternative.”

Even with specific designs, functionality is also a big consideration for those using business jets. When designing a jet, King explains that modular layouts are the most popular given their ability to adapt and feature “everything from conference areas and private offices to master bedrooms with steam showers.” 

In February, Textron Aviation unveiled the newest addition to the Cessna Citation business jet family, the Cessna Citation CJ4 Gen2. Tannahill said that when developing the aircraft, it focused on a design that enhances passenger comfort with an elevated cabin to match performance capabilities noted in earlier iterations of the Cessna Citation family. 

The galley and refreshment centre have optimised storage options, with an optional high-power outlet accompanied by a pull-out surface for a coffee maker. In the jet’s main cabin area, side-facing seat selections include a folding single seat, a fixed two-place couch and a folding two-place couch which provide additional storage capacity to secure belongings in‑flight. 

“Developments in technology have allowed us to introduce the new design elements,” Tannahill explains. “A first for Citation light jets are the CoolView Skylights and a vanity option, which give our customers the atmosphere of a large aircraft with light jet performance capabilities.” 

“It’s also a matter of health. I once had someone say that travelling all the time doesn’t just get old, it makes you old,” King adds, pointing out that someone is less likely to eat well, sleep soundly or exercise enough if they are travelling frequently, particularly on commercial flights. Private jets can offer a home-away-from-home experience, helping passengers arrive rested, refreshed and ready to conduct meetings when they arrive. This is important when flying internationally across multiple time zones, he explains, with many BBJ using systems that can help passengers minimise the impact on body clocks. 

A trend that’s here to stay 

Despite the vaccine rollout and the first stirrings of normality in the commercial aviation sector in many countries, the spike in private aviation doesn’t looks like ending any time soon. The National Business Aviation Association reports that the benefits are obvious and research has found that companies using business aircraft outperform those who do not. 

“World leaders and Fortune 500 companies aren’t the only ones using private aviation. The vast majority of the 15,000 business aircraft registered in the United States – some 97 percent – are operated by a broad cross-section of users from practically any industry and organisation imaginable,” remarks King.  

“Private aircraft help us see possibilities – and seize them,” he comments. “Our world is getting more and more interconnected, which makes aviation that much more vital. There’s a place for videoconferencing, but you will never replace the benefits of meeting with people face to face.”

Tannahill agrees, noting that business aviation allows an owner to have complete control over their flight schedule. “Time is a precious commodity and during a period where airlines aren’t operating as frequently, having access to your own aircraft brings more freedom.” 

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