For an engineering services company that carefully manages growth and describes its business model as “pretty conservative”, Northwest Aerospace Technologies’ decision to more than double its employee numbers over the last 18 months speaks volumes about the level of demand today for commercial aircraft retrofit work, including interior reconfigurations and inflight entertainment (IFE) and connectivity integration programmes.
Located near Boeing in Everett, Washington, and with an office in Bozeman, Montana, Northwest Aerospace Technologies (NAT) provides integration management for aircraft modification programmes involving multiple suppliers, and develops engineering, modification parts kits, certification documentation and FAA/EASA certification for major alterations.
“Airlines come to someone like us, the integrator, and have us manage the entire project and get one supplemental type certificate (STC) for an entire installation [per aircraft type],” says NAT executive vice president Jeff McShane. “Another way that it’s done is the airline picks us as the integrator, but separately buys an installation package from the IFE suppliers, like Panasonic Avionics or Thales. So we’d run the programme for the seats and all the interfaces with the seat suppliers and certify with the IFE and everything, but the IFE supplier at times gets its own STC. The reason it’s broken out is because Panasonic, for instance, now has multiple installation certifications for its eX2 IFE system so when it adds a carrier to its customer list it doesn’t take much to tap its STC package for a different airline’s configuration.”
In essence, NAT defines the scope of a programme and writes the overall certification plan. Generally, the airline then selects a maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) facility – some use their own in-house shops – to execute the installations. “We send guys over quite heavily [to provide guidance] on the first airplane and then it tails off from there, depending on how many configurations are in each fleet,” says McShane.
Finding employees capable of performing this sort of complex engineering work is not necessarily easy, and as such, NAT is cautious not to over-commit. “It’s a difficult skill to just go out and [get] off the street,” says McShane. His sentiment is shared by Qatar Airways, whose vice president aircraft programmes Syed Masroor Hasan recently told the APEX editor’s blog that a dearth in engineering talent has made meeting stringent new integration and certification requirements “a huge challenge” for the industry.
Even so, NAT has managed to grow from a team of fewer than 80 employees in late 2010 to about 160 employees today, and supports multiple integration programmes with American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Delta Air Lines, Etihad, Lufthansa, United Airlines and Virgin Atlantic. “We are hiring and continuing to expand. We’re seeing a backlog that goes out two to three years whereas in the past, in this retrofit business, we’d be lucky to see it go out for much more than a year. So we have a significant backlog [for our services],” says McShane.
So why is there so much demand for major aircraft modifications these days? A confluence of factors is at play.
The delay by about four years of the Boeing 787, says McShane, was “definitely a factor” in increasing demand for modifications as it meant that airlines hung onto – and consequently needed to refresh – their Boeing 767s. “There are several major 767 programmes that happened pretty late in their lifecycles. United has done some. Delta has done some. That affected 777s as well,” he notes.
Merger activity in the United States has also generated much business for engineering houses and MRO facilities. For instance, NAT secured several integration programmes “tied to the merger of United and Continental Airlines and the merger of Delta and Northwest Airlines”, says McShane.
Japanese seat manufacturer Koito’s admission in 2010 that it falsified test data on an estimated 150,000 seats in the world fleet also put intense pressure on the market, as EASA and the FAA issued airworthiness directives requiring airlines to determine whether affected seats and seating systems – and their components – are compliant with certain criteria related to flammability, static strength and dynamic strength.
The debacle generated additional work for NAT, which was tapped by United to ensure that Continental aircraft carrying Koito seats are in compliance with regulations.
Koito’s deception “definitely created a gap in the market for that segment that we’re dealing with”, notes aircraft interiors specialist and engineering firm Jamco America, which is also based in Everett and competes in some instances with NAT. “We have long relationships with our good customers, and they asked ‘can you help us?’ We’ve built spare parts, like cushions, etc, for existing Koito seats that are flying. And we’ve assisted airlines with doing some testing of the seats.”
Adding to the refurbishment boon is the fact that airlines are upgrading their aircraft with premium economy seats, whose popularity has flourished as economy seats have shrunk in size. Airlines are also replacing lie-flat business class seats with full-flat business class seats, as this type of offering has become the cost of doing business for airlines on long-haul routes.
McShane agrees that there “is a drive toward everybody getting to a [fully]-flat business-class seat. Then, obviously, once you commit to do that, you start to look at new inflight entertainment systems, and other things get added in, like new premium economy and economy seating.”
One of NAT’s high-profile programmes – assisting British Airways with upgrading the first-class cabins on its Boeing 777-200 and Boeing 747-400 aircraft – speaks to the complexity of major aircraft retrofits.
NAT says it has worked closely with British Airways Engineering, British Airways Maintenance Cardiff (BAMC) and the airline’s suppliers on the upgrade programme “which has included several prototype modifications requiring FAA STC certification and EASA validation”.
The companies completed a similar programme on BA’s Boeing 777-300ER aircraft, which were delivered directly from Boeing to BAMC for fitting of the new first-class and ‘Club World’ business class seats, IFE, cabin lighting and electronic blinds, under a separate NAT STC.
“[BA] wanted those features in first class [on its 777-200s] to be delivered on its new 777-300ERs but because Boeing hadn’t certified those product features before, BA took the aircraft without seats and flew them back to Wales and we did the STC, were the integrator to them, and took the product installed on the -200s and got them into the brand new -300s before they went into service,” explains McShane.
DOWN THE LINE
As evidenced by the work being conducted at BA, an airline may have more than one major modification programme running at the same time. Such is the case for US low-cost giant Southwest Airlines, which is in the process of fitting its fleet of Boeing 737 NextGen aircraft with Row 44’s Ku-band satellite-supported inflight connectivity solution as well as with a new EVOLVE interior that boasts slim-line seats (the latter is already being delivered linefit on the carrier’s new 737-800s).
The original design package for the Row 44 STC on the 737 was handled by Armstrong Aerospace, which also supplied the kit. Two MRO facilities, Everett-based Aviation Technical Services (ATS) and AAR in Indianapolis, accommodate the Row 44 installations, which are handled in two phases – the exterior equipment installation, which “essentially involves the satellite antenna assembly to the fuselage” and the interior installation, which sees the line replaceable units (LRUs) “mounted in the overhead cabin panels, installation of the flight deck control deck and cabling”, explains Row 44 chief marketing and sales officer Travis Christ.
The process typically consists of between 500- and 600-manhours of labour. Installation on a Southwest’s 737 takes five days, according to Christ, and Row 44 is pleased with that. “From our perspective, its important that the equipment be installed accurately since we expect for it to remain on the aircraft indefinitely,” he says.
Southwest’s director of contract services for maintenance, Gary Bjarke, notes that ATS is running a dedicated line for the Row 44 installs. Additionally, when aircraft go to AAR for heavy maintenance, and there is an opportunity to install Row 44, “we would take advantage of that down time”.
About 15 737s are being installed with the system per month but “we’ll probably get to 20 per month because we’ll probably start some additional standalone lines at ATS and AAR”, says Bjarke, adding that the carrier is “trying to be completely done by the end of next year with the – 700s [inclusive of 737s acquired through the AirTran Airways acquisition] and we should be able to do that fairly easily”.
Southwest is running a separate, in-house maintenance line to retrofit the new EVOLVE interior to its aircraft. For EVOLVE, Southwest retained the B/E Aerospace-manufactured ‘Innovator II’ seat frames on its 737-700s, but is adding fixed wing head rests; new, thinner, more durable foam fill; and lightweight E-Leather synthetic leather seat covers. It is also removing the under-seat floatation device – and instead adding life vest pouches – to create a lower profile seat, which in turn creates weight savings of nearly six pounds per seat.
“We can swap out an airplane from our current interior and do EVOLVE in about 12 hours; we already have a shipset of seats standing by ready to go on any aircraft. There is some shop work that gets done but most of it is swapping out. Right now, the majority of work is being done in Dallas by Southwest’s Dallas mechanics,” says Bjarke. He points out that the seats “are designed to go in the tracks easy, but these ones we’re used to and the base is pretty basic so that does help a lot”.
Because there are different maintenance lines for Row 44 and EVOLVE, “you could have an aircraft that has Row 44’s system installed and goes into EVOLVE or go the other way”, says the Southwest executive.
Back at ATS, mechanics are also busy with a separate programme – installing Recaro seats and Lumexis’ fibre optics-based IFE on flydubai’s brand new Boeing 737-800s, which go straight from delivery to ATS. This green field retrofit programme was implemented because Lumexis’ IFE system is not yet linefit offerable at Boeing.
“The seats are delivered with Recaro installed with our monitors, as well as our fibre and power, and ATS have them staged in the hangar. They are all sorted by row, and laid out prior to the install,” explains Lumexis chief operating officer Lou Sharkey. While the original goal was to complete installations in three days, he says, “Now we’re clocking around two days and 16 hours, which is incredibly impressive.”
Sharkey relates that the ATS team has “a great attitude” and dedication to the project. “Normally, in my experience, I’ve seen several places where the MRO has some sort of labour resources issues, but ATS to date has been flawless.”
The flydubai programme is a great case study of what can be accomplished through the retrofit process. For airlines that traditionally favour linefit over retrofit, Lumexis can now point to the success of the post-delivery modification programme for flydubai, and this “opens the door”, says Sharkey.
“Airlines can’t have aircraft out of service for long periods because of lease fees, so if an install is down to three days or less, like we’re doing, I think it has opened up a lot of eyes in the industry. A lot of people don’t believe it.”