Completion facilities have a tremendous array of skills set at their disposal. There is no choice about this. Fitting out a BBJ to the exacting specifications of a high net worth client means the completion facility has to have the ability to bring together a wide range of disciplines, from cabinet making to engineering and design. Does this mean that every client is going to get a perfect deal and full value for their money? Perhaps, if you believe in Santa Clause and fairies. In reality, the only thing that guarantees value for money for the client, according to Herbert Artinger, the CEO of ACES (Aircraft Conformant Engineering Services), who has overseen some 37 business jet completions so far, is if the owner has someone on the ground at the completion facility, examining and challenging the completion’s team at virtually every step of the road.
The problem, he points out, is that no matter how sincerely a completion facility starts off wanting to do their absolute best for the client, there will always be an inertial drag pulling their interpretation of the client’s design specifications in the direction that best suits the completion team. “I have lost count of the number of ways in which people find themselves able to reinterpret a plain “no” as meaning either “yes” or “perhaps”,” he says. If people can flip flop plain simple phrasing to mean the reverse of what is intended, it doesn’t take much imagination to see how wildly interpretations can differ when it comes to complex paragraphs setting out design ideas.
All too often the high net worth client is so taken with the actual purchase of the aircraft and with the design ideas that have been put to him/her, that it simply doesn’t occur to them to look ahead to the possibility that a) the completion facility might not finish the job on time or b) that it may finish in a rush with a list of 600 to 800 glitches that will have to be fixed at some future date, but which certainly won’t get completed by the agreed delivery date. Either way, the client is not getting value for money.
“There are three things that the client really has to write into the contract, from the outset, with very strong penalty clauses for breaching these parameters,” Artinger says. “These three things are the weight that the completion must not exceed, the range that the aircraft has to be able to achieve and the maximum decibel level. On top of this they will need a realistic completion date,” he adds. Fitting out a BBJ or an A318 might realistically be done in nine months of fitting time. For a 747 you are going to need closer to 18-24 months of actual fitting time and probably a year’s planning and engineering before the completion programme starts, he says. Here too, without stiff penalties for noncompliance, the completion facility is likely to view the owner’s deadline, as a wished for rather than an actual deadline.
“I have seen contracts, written before we were asked to come on board to supervise the job, which capped the penalties for late delivery at three months. If you do that, the completion facility is simply going to build the three month penalty into its bid contract and your completion date will come, when it comes. You have completely lost control,” he says. In 1996 he was working for Airbus Industries in Toulouse, as a working party team leader, doing airline engineering assistance modifications and upgrades. After 25 years with Airbus and a slight downturn in the industry it gave him the opportunity to look around. He already had good relationship with several leasing companies. They approached him and said if he started his own project management business, they’d guarantee him enough work to keep him busy for the next two years. Herbert Artinger established his firm ACES in July 1996. The core of his business at this point was focused on end of term lease recovery, lease conversions and the like, and this led, inevitably he says, to VIP completions.
“This was the emergence of the wide bodied business jet, when Boeing came out with the BBJ and Airbus responded with the ACJ 319. So ACES was asked to focus more directly on VIP interior completions. We started off in Hamburg and we worked our way through most of the Airbus VIP clients, then Boeing approached ACES to project manage one of their BBJs. The first wide-body VIP completion was in 1998 and also a small A319 at the time, plus an Airbus A310 that same year. “ACES with two other people besides myself. Today there are five of us and I plan to expand to seven over the next 18 months or so,” Artinger explains. The “office” for all his team is the current VIP completion hangers!
Technology, particularly three dimensional computer imaging and high resolution graphics displays, has given completions facilities a tremendous tool to engage with the customer’s designer. The appearance of various fabrics and/or colour choices, wood veneers, marble-like surfaces and so on can be seen almost instantly, allowing the customer to refine his or her preferences in real time. However, Artinger points out that the great “lie” of virtual reality is that in a VR world everything fits, everything matches, with no gaps or misalignments and with no unforeseen production issues materialising to mess things up. In a VR world, when he is with a top of the line completion facility, he can go to their VR room and walk through his aircraft from front to back and everything will be perfect. But when he goes back and sees the aircraft two months later the general idea is there, but not exactly as you would want it or to the level of perfection that was promised. No completion should be allowed to turn into a clearance sale for the completion facility. The client should never accept reasonable quality, if one has been promised world class quality.” This is typically reflected in the attitude of a major completion facility stating “What we design, is what you get”.
Another thing Artinger has against VR mock ups is that for so many completions facilities today they have completely done away with the practice of doing foam trial fittings of the aircraft. He is fair enough to say that the use of virtual reality reduced the error margin considerably and is a great help to the crafts people involved and to the designer. But you cannot take a VR mock up and trust it 100% and this is what happens when you eliminate the traditional fit check with foam mock ups actually placed inside the aircraft. “That is when you see that the ergonomics of the design, as presented, simply do not work, that someone’s chair can’t fold down, because their knees will hit a table, or that the power outlet is obscured or impossibly placed,” he observes.
Artinger says that these days he often asks for a trial fit and the answer, invariably is, “Oh we don’t need that these days, we have VR.” “The greatest thing about VR is that it gives the completion facility a fantastic tool to do a sales pitch to the client. What happens, when you go down this road is that last minute adjustments have to be made and the owner finds that the veneer in a finished cabinet has been botched over, because of a late alteration to cover a misfit,” Artinger says.
The package offered to the client by ACES comes in a variety of forms. The client can choose to have Artinger and his team present throughout the completion, or come in for the last two months of the project or perhaps one week a month throughout the project. “We try to make it clear to the client that opting to get us involved only the last two months is pretty ineffective. All the damage is already done and all the items have already been fabricated. Ideally we should be there from the moment the client decides they want to buy a VIP jet. That way we can ensure that the design specification is written properly,” he says. If the owner leaves the writing of the specification to the completion facility the chances are that it will look extremely comprehensive on the surface, but will, in reality, be far too porous and open to varying interpretations. “We have written a great many specifications, from BBJs to 747s and you have to understand what it is that you want and how what you want is going to impact on the crucial performance metrics of weight, range and noise level,” he points out. A 52Db level is way too high for a VIP jet interior, but that is what some completions facilities will target. If you do not get the noise level down to 48Db or 50Db at least, then you are not getting value for money. With a business jet you should be able to converse at the same level of tone that you would use in a mid to upper category limousine. You certainly do not want the client complaining that their car is quieter than their airplane,” he comments.
The decibel scale is a logarithmic scale so two Db more is twice as loud, not just fractionally louder. Above all you do not want a clause in the contract that says the equivalent of “the completion facility will make reasonable efforts to keep noise levels below this or that limit.” When push comes to shove a phrase like “reasonable efforts” is no barrier to the completion facility doing what it pleases.
“The point to emphasise is that we can do a great job for the client, if we are allowed to do it. If we are brought into the process late then we are basically in damage limitation mode, trying to rescue the client from what would otherwise in all probability be a disappointment. We had an Asian client ask us if we could come in and project manage the last two weeks before delivery and I had to say that there would be no point. The completion facility will give us a list of 600 – 700 write up items that will still require work on delivery, but these will not be addressed until the client brings the jet back for warranty checks in six months. That will satisfy no one. The other point to stress is that you must have penalty clauses and they have to be tough enough to hurt the facility, if it gets it wrong. Our aim is not to be nasty to the facility, but to bring a fair, objective view to the process so that the owner’s interests are protected. Once the specifications are agreed they are not a wish list that the facility can treat, as flexible. They are specified and have to be delivered and to the quality promised – or else!” he concludes.