Engineers at Lufthansa Technik recently faced a tough problem: How do you install a 300-pound bronze racehorse in a large private jet? The client insisted that it be secured to the cabin floor by only one leg. Solving that type of problem can make a company’s reputation in the demanding business of creating aircraft interiors for the wealthiest individuals in the world.
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Luxury completions, one of the services provided by aircraft maintenance, repair, and overhaul facilities, is a global business, and currently one of the healthiest sectors of the aircraft industry. In one particularly active center, at EuroAirport near Basel, Switzerland, three companies employ 3,000 workers to complete new aircraft or to refurbish gently used ones, a process that can last two years and add 10 tons of innards to a hull that either arrives hollow or is gutted after it lands.
EuroAirport is one of the more unusual airports in Europe. Though it is situated entirely on French soil, just inside France’s border with Switzerland, it is operated by both countries. Its location in the tri-national area of Alsace (the German border is not far away) is part of the marketing strategy for the three completions companies it hosts. They take advantage of the Swiss, French, and German reputations for precision and Old World craftsmanship to promote their abilities to install fine furnishings.
“In the French Alsace, and nearby in Germany, we have all of the talent we need in one area,” says Heinz Köhli, one of the founders and chief executive of AMAC Aerospace. “That makes Basel unique.”
The newcomer of the three firms, AMAC opened its completions center in November 2008 with 180 craftsmen. The company expects to double its workforce by this June, when it will have completed construction of a second hangar. The orders for completions that have compelled AMAC and its competitors—Jet Aviation Basel and Lufthansa Technik Switzerland—to hire more employees arrived one to three years ago, when profits in the oil, mineral, and metals markets peaked, and newly rich magnates and governments bought airplanes. Aircraft sales have since slowed or stopped, yet each company, with a backlog that will keep it busy for several years, has been hiring. “At the moment the market is at a standstill, but I see stable growth for completions,” says Köhli. “A year ago we would have said Russia has the most potential, but our main customer is now African governments, and we have some high-net-worth individuals. Some of them produce vodka, for example. But you cannot focus on a particular industry or region for growth.” Certainly most at EuroAirport expect little business from the United States, where the economic downturn hurt corporate aviation more than it did in Europe.
In an AMAC conference room last spring, Köhli and Ruedi Kurz, who oversees maintenance and production, looked at a graphic representation of their company’s work-in-progress. A box of flat, black, magnetic airplanes was mounted on the wall next to an illustration of an AMAC hangar floor. An airplane silhouette was placed on every patch of floor, and each silhouette was marked with a tail number. To the right of the graphic, a glossy panel bore a blueprint of a cavernous new hangar AMAC was building. A year before that hangar’s completion, its floor was also full.
“We did our build-out a year ago when the world was different,” said Köhli. “Thank God we already have our pipeline of orders, and that we are lean and flexible.” Kurz motioned to a real Airbus A320 in the hangar. “The customer signed the completions contract with us,” he said, “though at the time, this site was nothing but cornfields.”
The A320, which has since been delivered, had its registration number painted over, and when I got ready to take a photograph, I was directed to make sure that the tail number of its black miniature counterpart didn’t show. Companies in the global completions business protect their clients’ identities. Have your aircraft finished by any of these firms, and that’s between you, a production manager, and a mushrooming family of specialists that includes woodworkers, upholsterers, plumbers, leather craftsmen, and engineers.
Most craftsmen start in the more mundane area of the business—the maintenance, repair, and overhaul that keep aircraft flying. They often then move up to finish the interiors of new commercial airliners. The most skilled workers build out the cabins of luxuryliners for wealthy individual clients.
“Our commercial work is still high-quality of course, but it’s fitness for a particular purpose,” says Clark Goodison, a Scotsman who manages the master craftsmen in the production support shops for Lufthansa Technik Switzerland. “You get on and off an airliner within two hours. You have your sandwich and the seats are comfortable enough. But the Sultan of Brunei, who might fly his aircraft four times per year, wants everything to be perfect. The VIP completion is about the precision. It’s the quality, it’s the finish, and a lot of the feel is artistic. Our staff look three times at a task before they decide to do it.”