Based in San Antonio, Texas and established only in 2012, AERIA Luxury Interiors is a specialist in large aircraft VVIP completions for high-net worth and head of state customers. It’s demanding work that the company does exceptionally well, in a sector of the industry where discretion, reputation and efficient project execution are perhaps more important than ever to success. How then does a seven-year old company do so well at it?
In AERIA’s case, appearances really are deceptive and Ron Soret, Vice President and General Manager, says: “We like to refer to San Antonio as the birthplace of large aircraft VIP cabin completions. They’ve been done here since the early 1970s and include the first three Boeing 747 cabin completions ever.”
In fact, AERIA Luxury Interiors traces its origins directly back to 1960s’ business aviation pioneer Dee Howard. Using military surplus Lockheed Ventura twins as feedstock, Howard created a series of conversions that might be considered among the world’s first modern business aircraft. He also took a role in developing what today is Bombardier’s Learjet, working with Bill Lear in the early 1960s and building the initial full-scale Learjet mock-up in his San Antonio hangar.
Howard’s company later pioneered the VVIP widebody completion process, working on the earliest Boeing 747 conversions, including a 747-300 for His Majesty King Fahad of Saudi Arabia, and developed a line of aircraft modifications and equipment that it sold alongside its MRO business. By 1991, Alenia had acquired a 100% stake in the Dee Howard Co (DHC) and in 2002, VT San Antonio Aerospace purchased it. In 2012 it launched AERIA Luxury Interiors, a company with traditions dating back to the beginnings of modern business and VVIP aviation.
Today, AERIA primarily works on Boeing and Airbus models. “We do completions for heads-of-state in addition to Fortune 500 corporations and high net-worth individuals.” Aside from the demands of cabin work on such a large scale, Soret says: “One of the biggest challenges when managing a head-of-state completion project is that we have to work with several government departments and officials during the decision-making process and get the necessary approval from all these various stakeholders while adhering to the given timeline.
“We’ve carried out completions for an entire aircraft and partial refurbishments before, and each has its own unique set of challenges. We perform the majority of the work in-house, although we do outsource some parts of the cabinetry fabrication. The most substantial portion of the completion process in which we partner with a trusted vendor is probably the CMS/IFE system. To date, we have partnered with Astronics/CCC and Rockwell Collins [now Collins Aerospace] for all the systems we’ve installed.”
There’s often time and money to be saved in having airframe maintenance and/or repairs performed while an aircraft is grounded for cabin work, especially if access panels might be coming off for antenna installation or other major IFEC work. AERIA offers a solution here too. “We can provide a full range of turnkey solutions. We’ve our own staff of technicians, who provide MRO services as well as interior completion and refurbishment. And, in collaboration with our sister company VT DRB, an FAA ODA [Organizaion Designation Authorization] holder, we can offer certification solutions and engineering for avionics, antenna installations and other major modifications, as well as complex repairs.”
Also based at San Antonio, VT DRB specialises in engineering, programme management and certification of cabin projects, avionics and structural repairs. Established in 1996, the company reckons to have been involved in at least 25% of the in-service BBJ completions and represents an ideal, local adjunct to AERIA’s services.
AERIA employs around 140 personnel, operating multiple shifts when the workload is high and when an aircraft delivery is imminent. Typically for a completion house, its workforce is highly qualified in traditional skills handed down through the generations and applied to comply with the latest aviation standards and regulations, while upholding the style and functionality expected of a VVIP cabin. Nonetheless, Soret explains that the company is keen to embrace the latest technologies wherever appropriate.
“Keeping a close eye on technological advancements, we recognised very early on that 3D printing is a great technology to replace antiquated practices that often take up a great deal of time simply due to their process or cure times. Apart from improving efficiency, 3D printing technology has also provided us endless opportunities in exercising design ingenuity. Together with our specialty shops, our skilled technicians and world class craftsmen have pushed beyond the ordinary to showcase their artistry and bring focus to the aesthetics and details in each product to better enhance the quality of work our customers have come to appreciate from us.” And, AERIA is equally keen to embrace and nurture the next generation of craftspeople: “We offer trainee positions and we’ve partnered with local tech schools to offer apprentice opportunities.”
It’s a familiar irony of the completions business that those performing the work very rarely have the opportunity to show it off other than to the client. Computer renderings might embody the ambition of a design but often give little idea of the quality of finish or ambience created. Thus, a satisfied client list might be the only real evidence the world at large has of a company’s capability, but AERIA has earned a rare opportunity to properly showcase its work.
The company has been shortlisted for the 2019 International Yacht & Aviation Awards, presented in Venice on 24 May. Known as Le Blanc et Noir Owner’s Retreat, AERIA’s entry is configured for the BBJ MAX 8 and Soret explains its significance: “We’re thrilled to be able to participate in the awards, which offer a platform to showcase our in-house design expertise in luxury cabin interiors. It’s an opportunity a company like ours rarely gets to enjoy owing to the wishes of our clients to maintain their privacy. At the same time, the awards offer a front row seat to the hidden world of aviation design that very few people ever see.”
The concept centres around a ‘Wellness Cabin’, equipped with exercise equipment, massage chairs and pop-up monitors for entertainment. A VIP bedroom off the Wellness Cabin features a king size bed and both rooms are designed to maximise the use of available space while simultaneously creating a sense of spaciousness. A lavatory, including two marble vanity units and a large steam shower, completes what AERIA calls the Master Bedroom Suite. Altogether, the suite demonstrates what can be achieved when traditional materials and modern design unite, yet Soret still doesn’t consider it AERIA’s greatest work.
“Our major achievement to date was the re-delivery of our first widebody interior completion, on a Boeing 777. Our in-house designers collaborated with the client’s personal design team to provide guidance as well as ensuring the products created and materials used were certifiable and fully compliant with airworthiness standards. Guided by an executive leadership team of industry professionals and realised through the dedication of experienced technicians and skilled craftsmen, the 777 programme was successfully delivered on time and within budget. We produced a beautiful interior for a very satisfied customer.
“Moving forward, we hope to continue working on such large-scale projects and strengthen our track record. We’re proud to have achieved what we have in just a few short years, and we are confident of building AERIA into a leading brand in the market in the foreseeable future.”