You only get one chance to make a first impression, as the saying goes. Carriers who neglect their cabin interiors do so at their peril, as Chris Lewis discovers
The cabin interior is the airline’s shop window. If it is clean and well designed, it creates an impression of a quality carrier that cares about its passengers. If fittings are broken or missing, or surfaces grimy or worn, the passenger’s first thought may well be: ‘What else is wrong with this plane?’
However, keeping a cabin in top condition is labour intensive, and labour costs money these days. The temptation to let care and maintenance of ‘non-essential’ fixtures and fittings slide is ever-present.
Derek Byrne, of Aero Aid, based in Navan, Ireland, says: “The airlines want to ignore ‘routine’ or ‘preventative’ maintenance in the cabin and my experience to date, is that ‘if it isn’t broken don’t fix it and if it is broken, repair it’ – and a ‘temporary’ repair will suffice. Then generally that becomes a ‘permanent repair’ until that repair becomes unserviceable again and the part is eventually replaced.”
However, he points out: “Maintenance could be viewed by carriers as a waste of money – but the cabin is where the punters interface with the aircraft. You have to get that right as an airline, as everyone is a frequent flyer nowadays.”
If it were just a matter of tightening the odd bolt or cleaning a few seat covers, it would not be such an issue. However, as Andrius Norkevicius at MAC Interiors points out, repairing aircraft cabin interiors isn’t a simple matter.
Norkevicius, who is board member and business developer at the Gatwick-based one-stop-shop aircraft interiors refurbishment, upgrade and manufacturing company, explains: “The biggest challenge is access to data for aircraft equipment, in order to perform the repairs or modification in an affordable manner and to be able to perform the necessary certification. With OEM restrictions and monopolies, organisations in maintenance and repair are faced with countless burn and stress tests to do, before alternative repair schemes or materials can be applied, which could be avoided by just simply having the data exchange for operators in place.”
MAC Interiors has Design (Part 21J), Manufacturing (Part21G) and Repair (Part 145) approvals and capabilities to work in all types of small and large plane cabins. It can refurbish or produce lavatories, galleys, front row or surrounding furniture, bulkheads and class dividers, stowage, seats and seating parts (like plastics, cushions or covers). It can also design and produce customised business jet VIP interiors.
It cooperates with a number of MRO facilities in UK and in Europe when it carries out installation and on-wings services.
Lately, MAC Interiors has started to offer touchless operation lavatory equipment, like faucets, waste flaps and flush operation, as premium features and upgrade kits. There is also a full cabin upgrade programme offering satcom with WiFi connectivity, along with wireless in-flight entertainment solutions, both for passenger and business jets.
Passengers on longer haul scheduled flights are becoming more demanding. “Especially when we do retrofits or full refurbishment, the latest items have to be incorporated,” Norkevicius says. “Nowadays any longer leg operation aircraft has to have USB charging points and in most cases passengers expect WiFi connectivity too.”
Wear and tear
However, while interior fittings are getting more complex in some respects, in others they are getting simpler, at least at certain ends of the market. Aircraft cabins are getting much more wear and tear these days, especially at the low-cost carrier (LCC) end of the market, Norkevicius continues: “That’s no surprise or big challenge itself, just the repair or exchange cycles are more frequent.”
Seats come in for the most ‘abuse’ so many LCC operators tend to use the simplest possible seat designs – no recline feature, literature pockets or cup holders – even to the extent of sacrificing some passenger comfort in exchange for much higher reliability and minimal need for spare parts and repairs.
Designers of interior components are, though, working to make items stand up to wear and tear better, with materials and designs that combine good functionality with high durability, he says. “Materials like CORIAN used in lavatories, for example, are extremely durable, look good and can be maintained in good condition with a simple polish or rub down with a kitchen sponge. The same is true of non-slip floor surfaces, which can have the dual purpose of sealing moisture and being decorative too.”
Another new development in the industry, although one that has had limited application so far, is 3D printing. Norkevicius states: “We are using 3D printing in several areas; one of them is to address quick repair needs on seating parts, to overcome long lead times.”
While 3D printing can reduce AOG [aircraft on ground] fees, it is still rather costly and has so far proved to be economically feasible only for prototype or very low volume parts.
Hendrik Rybicki, corporate communi-cations manager at Hamburg-based Vartan Product Support, says that its part in scheduled maintenance “is more or less a service function. We assist airlines and maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) organisations when they either have too few staff to carry out necessary repairs and maintenance or when they have a lack of certified and trained mechanics for certain components or assemblies.”
He adds: “We are called by airlines when they experience time-critical situations, for instance an aircraft-on-ground situation. When an aircraft is grounded or an airline realises that they need quick repairs, our rapid intervention team can be deployed worldwide very quickly and then helps airlines or MROs manage urgent maintenance or repairs.”
Vartan offers its services both directly in the field at customers’ bases and workshops and at its own maintenance shop in Hamburg – and will soon do the same in Seattle. It mainly carries out scheduled overhauls and repairs of bigger components like complete galleys or lavatories.
Rybicki adds: “Our on-site support capability list covers almost any product in aircraft cabins; the list goes from window panels though passenger seats from all classes and entire galleys up to in-flight entertainment systems. With this background, we can easily add trained staff to maintenance events that are needed for certain products, so that we are able to offer maintenance, repair and overhaul services for almost any cabin product and equipment.”
As Vartan holds an EASA part 145 certificate, its services are primarily requested by European operators in Europe: airlines from other countries normally need other maintenance certifications. In the last few months, the company has worked for customers in the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Northern Ireland, the Netherlands and Switzerland.
However, Vartan is also working on obtaining a US Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) part 145 certificate – expected in the next few months – that will enable it to serve customers in the US and all those who operate under FAA regulation.
At the moment, Vartan is purely project oriented, which means working on individual projects according to customer demand. However, says Rybicki: “We are currently evaluating whether to expand our services to continuous cabin maintenance, repair and overhaul for airlines. In this model, one or two mechanics, depending on aircraft size and number and the scope of the respective contract, would be permanently assigned to an airline’s base. They would take care of all line maintenance as well as cosmetic cabin repairs.”
One evident trend is that, with increased competition, carriers have put much greater emphasis on individuality in the cabin over the last decade or two, Rybicki adds. Indeed: “Cabin design is a statement because the cabin is the most important impression and visual point of reference of an airline for passengers. Airlines increasingly put emphasis on their individual cabin product and on keeping their cabins’ visual impression tidy and clean.”
Standard aircraft checks maintain technical functions, but not necessarily the cabin’s visual appearance, he argues. Decor surfaces, such as window panels or lavatories, often look dirty or scratched long before major maintenance events and Vartan is keeping an eye on the growth potential in this area too.
Are you sitting comfortably?
Aircraft seats have changed over the years. Nowadays, there is a lot of emphasis on appearance, but equally seats tend to be more robust and made from more durable composite materials.
As one industry expert put it: “The seats that replace those in legacy aircraft tend to be more rugged; they have fewer parts and they last longer.”
Seats come in for a certain amount of ‘unfair usage’ – people bouncing their babies on seatback tables, for example – but the number of parts that have to be replaced is decreasing.
Seat manufacturers have paid more attention to making critical components like arm caps more robust – cabin crew do occasionally stand on them to check overhead lockers – and often items like seat covers are designed for quick and easy removal so that they can be cleaned.
Airlines operate on tight turnaround times these days and the design of the cabin interior can have an influence on achieving this.
Airlines do a lot of seat repair and maintenance work themselves, but there are specialist companies that help fill in the gaps of their own operations and ride out the peaks and troughs, especially at busier periods when aircraft go off lease and are leased out again, and it is often at this point that cabin refurbishments are carried out.
Certified Aviation Services (CAS) president of line operations Michael Stafford says that many airlines are using scheduled downtime to carry out seat repairs and maintenance. “Some of our customers have seen the value in partnering with CAS to perform an overnight cabin mission on their RON (remaining overnight) aircraft,” he says. “Each seat is inspected for fit form and function. All of the items that would be touched by the passenger during the flight are operated and repaired or adjusted as needed.”
The service also extends to safety items, by ensuring the life vest is installed and properly stowed, the seat belt is in good working order and seat armrests are operating properly. Additional attention is paid to premium cabin seats.
Carpet seat tracks are addressed on an on-condition basis. All the lights and PCUs (power control units) are also attended to during this check in, addition to overhead stowage bins and aircraft lavatories.
“In all, the crew will spend a full eight hours in the cabin and address an average of 200 individual issues per visit. This attention to detail is what separates the overall customer experience from their competition,” Stafford says.