Airline cabins are effective indicators of the health of the commercial air transport industry. Intensive cabin modifications, even when combined with a C check to optimize downtime, run up substantial costs when aircraft are kept out of operation for the weeks it takes to freshen up the interiors. The fact that airlines, such as Qantas, Delta and Iberia, are sending their fleets for retrofits could be a favorable sign that a recovery is under way, as many of the modifications are meant to match older aircraft to new models, such as the Airbus A380 and the Boeing 787.

These fleetwide modifications are creating welcome opportunities both for third-party MROs that can help with the work as well as smaller original equipment manufacturers that build specialized, cutting-edge interior components. As airlines look to differentiate themselves in a cut-throat market for international flights, they are raising the bar for the amenities they offer both in economy and business classes. Full-flat seats and personal inflight entertainment (IFE) are becoming the norm on most overseas flights, rather than a luxury.

According to ICF SH&E principal Richard Brown, modifications are the fastest-growing segment of the MRO industry, which totaled $44 billion in 2010. Aircraft modifications represent 7% of that number, or $3 billion per year. Brown expects that number to grow to $3.7 billion in 2011, with about 75% of cabin modification revenue coming from interior upgrades and 25% from IFE installations.

That revenue is expected to help drive up total heavy maintenance revenue across the industry at a compound annual growth rate of 3% over the next decade, says David Stewart, VP ICF SH&E. He expects the $50.2 billion heavy maintenance market in 2011 to grow to $65 billion in 2020.

COLOSsAL CONFIGURATIONS

Airlines have tasked themselves with the tall order of configuring whole fleets of aircraft with completely new interiors, often to reflect new deliveries of new aircraft models. This often presents itself in the form of a multi-million dollar package that includes inflight entertainment (IFE) system upgrades and cabin refurbishments in tandem with other marketing initiatives, such as upgrading airport lounges. One example is Qantas, which started retrofitting its fleet of nine Boeing 747-400 aircraft in August as part of an AUS$250 million ($256 million) project to upgrade this fleet.

Qantas started retrofitting the 747s at its maintenance base in Avalon, Australia, to match most of the components to its A380s on order, installing the same IFE systems and seats in economy and business class. The first upgraded 747 entered the fleet in October, and Qantas will induct the remaining aircraft into service through 2012. The modification of each aircraft takes about six weeks to complete.

Qantas says that although it is still determining a possible retirement program for the 747s, these aircraft are young and will add consistency to the fleet by matching the A380 interiors.

Qantas is one of several airlines that are capitalizing on a growing trend of consolidating the appearance of their cabin classes. Generally, they combine first and business class into a hybrid class, giving business travelers a first class-style experience. Qantas is one of many carriers offering a premium economy product, which serves as a bridge between traditional coach and the upper class. Premium economy usually offers more legroom for an additional fee.

Like Qantas, Delta is undergoing an ambitious retrofit program for its widebody fleet, the most intricate of which is directed at reconfiguring its 767-300ERs. Delta started the modifications in August, and the second aircraft already has been completed.

Delta says it is on track this year to complete the first seven, which are extra-extended-range Boeing 767-300 aircraft specially designed to operate on the longest flights. The airline says all 767-300ER interiors will be finished by the end of 2013.

Delta also is changing its configurations. The airline will now offer an Economy Comfort class on its entire international widebody fleet of 170 aircraft. The change will give passengers four in. of extra legroom, as well as in-seat power on all Economy Comfort seats by 2013.

United Continental plans to standardize a premium economy section on its long-haul fleet, following the merger of Continental and United airlines. United already has 125 aircraft with flat-bed seats and plans to bring that number to 185 once it reconfigures Continental's 12 two-class 767-400s and more than a dozen three-class United 777s with new premium cabins.

The Continental 767s have not had a major upgrade since their delivery. “They currently have a BusinessFirst product, but it is eight to nine years old,” says Rahsaan Johnson, spokesperson for United.

Continental's fleet will continue to operate with two-class cabins—BusinessFirst and an economy section that features the Economy Plus extra legroom in the first few rows. United's current international fleet has three cabins with an extra first class, but it will start flying some domestic two-class 767-300 due to route adjustments stemming from the merger.

In addition to the flatbed seats, United has started to introduce Economy Plus on all of its Continental mainline aircraft, which means equipping 38 Continental aircraft with the new seats by the end of the year and 100 more by the end of the first quarter of 2012. The United fleet, which comprises 359 mainline aircraft and 150 regional jets, has been flying with the Economy Plus cabin since 1999.

Continental and United have Panasonic IFE systems throughout their fleets, but the merged carrier has already installed the Panasonic eX2 product on Continental's retrofitted 777-200s and United is in the process of installing the system on the Boeing 767-400s, in the hangar now. The system matches the IFE on the 787, which Continental has on order.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Spanish operator Iberia will start its own retrofit program for 17 Airbus A340-600s in mid-October 2012 at its maintenance facility in Madrid. Each aircraft will take about four weeks to complete, says Eugenia Nieto de Antonio, engineering project manager for cabin interiors and IFE upgrades. Iberia plans to complete all of the modifications in-house.

“They are currently in the same status that they were in the time of the delivery of the aircraft, so this will be their big modification,” says Nieto, who says that the average age of the fleet is about four years. The airline will retire its A340-300s when it starts to receive A330-300s in 2015, but the A340-600s will stay in service at least until those deliveries start rolling in.

“The cabin will be completely different in image,” says Nieto, when comparing the old and new cabins on the Airbus A340-600s. The only thing that will remain is the concept of the two-class cabin.” The aircraft will have a business class and standard economy cabin, although the number of business-class seats will rise from 42 to 46 after the modification. New lighting, seats and IFE system will be part of the retrofit.

Although airlines with their own MROs will try to do as much of the work on these fleet programs as possible, many airlines use vendors to help with engineering the cabins. United and Delta both use outside vendors, including Hong Kong Aircraft Engineering Co. Ltd. (Haeco) to complete some of their cabins.

Haeco assisted Delta with the first 767-300T flat-bed prototype, which achieved a supplemental type certificate (STC) at Haeco before being returned to the airline in Atlanta.

CUSTOMER COMFORT

For widebodies, seats with improved space and on-demand, personal IFE systems are the most important elements of the refurbishment projects.

Qantas will replace an older Rockwell Collins IFE system with the Panasonic on-demand IFE system, which it currently uses on its A380s. Delta has selected the Panasonic eX2 IFE system, which features 7-in. Eco 9i touchscreens, for its 767-300ERs. It will offer slightly bigger 10.6 in. screens in Business Elite class. Iberia, eyeing a replacement of the 3000i Panasonic system on its A340-600s, also is targeting the Panasonic eX2.

As for seats, Delta will fly with 36 of Contour's Vantage flat-bed seats in Business Elite class on its Boeing 767-300ERs, offering passengers fully-flat beds up to 79-in. long. These seats do not cut down on capacity when compared to the angle seats currently installed in the cabin. The new seats are 20% wider, and each has 110v AC in-seat power and USB power.

Delta's Economy Comfort on the Boeing 767-300ERs will have 29 slim-line Weber 5751 seats, while the regular economy section will seat 143 passengers. In addition to upgrading the seats and the IFE, Delta has refurbished the cabin with the Heath Tecna NuLook ceilings and sidewalls, Emteq LED lighting and Jamco lavatories.

Iberia also opted for the Weber 5751 model in economy class, but it will use Sogerma seats for business class, which are 77-in., full-flat seats when pulled out. Despite offering full-flat seats, the number of business-class seats will rise from 42 to 46. Each seat will have an IFE screen in the seatback.

United's seating vary with each aircraft type in its own fleet and the aircraft that it is acquires from Continental. United installed B/E flat-bed seats on its 24 747-400s; however, it chose Recaro slim-line seats for economy class on its entire fleet of aircraft, except for its new economy class in 46 777-200s, which the airline is retrofitting with Weber seats.

CUSTOMIZED COMPONENTS

Although companies like Panasonic and B/E Aerospace are finding plentiful new opportunities in the airline retrofits, companies that make specialized products know airlines use their aircraft to distinguish themselves.

Timco, manufacturer of FeatherWeight lavatory and galley retrofit kits used by operators such as TAM and Japan Air Lines, says customers are paying more attention to customizing their interior components.

“It seems like over the last two years, there's more discussion of wanting to upgrade lavatories, where traditionally there really wasn't,” says Jeff Luedeke, manager of business development at Timco. “The transition that we're starting to see is that the marketing groups of airlines are starting to get more engaged with the design and the stylistic features of lavatories,” he adds. “Traditionally, lavatories used to have stainless steel countertops, and now you're starting to use Corian or a composite, where [the airline] selects its own unique colors.”

Luedeke notes that customers want special touches, such as LED lighting in lavatory ceilings, above the countertops and in mirrors.

Timco is experimenting with blue lighting in aircraft for the Boeing 767, so that the light is not as harsh to passengers' eyes when they enter the lavatory from a darkened cabin at night. It is working on a FeatherWeight lavatory line for the Airbus A330 and expects an STC for the project as soon as the first quarter of 2012.

Dasell Cabin Interiors is another example of a small company that is catering to airlines clamoring for custom components. Dasell installed the first-ever monument for a shower cube in an Emirates A380 first-class lavatory.

Andreas Buchholz, program manager for A380 lavatories at Dasell, says many challenges existed when modifying the aircraft lavatory to fit the shower monument and to get the water systems to work. “We had a lot of development challenges,” says Buchholz. “In the normal lavs, you have a boiler with a water level of one liter, and it is sufficient to clean your hands. But it is not sufficient to take a shower, so you have a special water heating system,” he says. Designing the monument itself was also a challenge because Dasell could not exceed certain weight restrictions.

The company, which provides service bulletins for traditional Airbus lavatory retrofits, says airlines have been requesting special treatments, such as countertops that appear to have marble or wood finishes.