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A Bombardier Challenger 850 executive jet gets a cabinet of fine wood veneer, made by Lufthansa Technik craftsmen. Finishes add tons to an airplane’s empty weight. (Courtesy Lufthansa Technik)

The Gold-Plated Cabin

There aren’t many companies that can make an airliner fit for a king.

To ensure consistent trade skills and promote a company culture, Lufthansa Technik launched an apprentice program more than 50 years ago. This year, some 800 apprentices, ages 16 to 20, work in its German plants. Some, after completing internships subsidized by the German government, will work under a master for months to years before taking on a less supervised role in the company.

Karl Eikelmann is the senior director of production at Jet Aviation Basel. “We tell recruits that in cars you only do production, and it’s always the same work. Here, you don’t see the same work twice,” says Eikelmann. Most of the 60 specialists in the Jet Aviation upholstery shop came from automotive factories (a common recruiting ground for all three companies). The shop sews every stitch needed in the aircraft cabin, from the carpet to the sofa to the window shades to, for the very particular client, a fine fabric lining for dresser drawers.

Before any of the craftsmen begin work, however, interior designers determine the clients’ needs and desires. The consultation ordinarily takes months.
“Most customers know that they can’t bring their home designer and their yacht designer and directly translate that to their airplane,” says Bernd Schramm, AMAC’s chief operations officer. Every fabric or veneer, along with its adhesives, varnish, or paint, has to be certified by aviation authorities, who will subject the materials to burn tests. A material—leather, for example—is exposed to a flame for 12 seconds. In that period, it must not catch fire. If it ignites after that, it must extinguish itself without intervention in less than 15 seconds from the moment of ignition, or the material cannot be used on an aircraft. If leather is mated with adhesive and veneer to form a headboard or office chair, the combination of materials must remain non-flammable for a full minute of exposure to fire, and any flame that appears after that must also burn out within 15 seconds.

“The most difficult to pass a burn test is animal horn,” says Eikelmann at Jet Aviation. “And we have to burn-test every material, including stone veneer, which is the newest idea for vanity tops.” The veneer, made of minute flakes distilled from rare quarries, can be as thin as 3.2 millimeters, and is affixed to a featherweight metallic honeycomb. The stone veneer passed the burn tests.

Completions firms try to accommodate all requests. “Some customer may ask that all the controls on his main chair in the cabin for the entertainment system be transferred from the right to the left side, and that’s just fine with us,” says Lufthansa’s Goodison. “Maybe he wants to sip his champagne with the other hand.”
Part of the process may include constructing a full-size mock-up in white Styrofoam, right down to the king-size bed, conference room, and gourmet galley, to help the customer’s designer picture the floor plan. At Jet Aviation, such a mock-up costs $600,000 on average, and stays intact just long enough for a walk-through. Since most design is proprietary, and many furnishings unique, the mock-up is then destroyed.

Some requests just can’t fly. Lufthansa Technik had to reject a Middle Eastern client’s demand for an open flame in the cabin, reminiscent of a nomadic desert campfire. The company offered an alternative—an electrical appliance that created an artificial fire—but the project was abandoned. Jet Aviation worked exhaustively to craft a sofa designed like an immense seashell, but could not build it to meet weight and height requirements, or the regulation that such seats must withstand 9 to 16 Gs.

But Lufthansa was able to make one dream come true: a night sky rendered in tiny diodes, to imitate a constellation the customer had enjoyed one special evening.
Once the aviation safety requirements have been met, the craftsmen must meet a very high standard of quality. All work performed is checked, and checked again. Employees watch for the tiniest smudge on fabrics as they move from delivery dock to factory shops, and an elevator with a special speed for full loads prevents even a gentle bounce at the bottom to keep from damaging delicate furnishings.

Many of the finishes are exotic. Eikelmann holds out a patch of steel-gray skin from an ocean stingray, which an Asian customer wants on his chair.

“Bubinga wood seems to be the thing now,” says Clark Goodison, who as an amateur musician first saw the rare and costly grain on African drums. One project at Jet Aviation required a team of artists from Eastern Europe be flown in for six weeks. They hand-painted a decorative pattern on a roll of Alcantara (a suede-like material) running 45 feet along the cabin ceiling.

“The most expensive finish is gold plate, but any finish can be costly depending on how many curves,” says Eikelmann. Curved surfaces require more care to align with other layers as well as the underlying honeycomb of the furnishing and adjoining fixtures, and they take many more hours to seal and polish.

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