In the business of luxury airplane interiors, no request is too crazy to consider fulfilling.
With over 30 years’ experience in the business, Ron Soret and Ken Harvey have fitted the interiors of airplanes with exercise equipment, mahjong tables and even an oven big enough to roast a baby goat.
Harvey is the director of design and Soret the vice-president and general manager of completions at AERIA Luxury Interiors, the VIP completion arm of ST Engineering. The pair are based in San Antonio.
Speaking on the sidelines of the Singapore Airshow 2018 on Thursday (8 February), Soret said that although there had been a “slowdown” across the aviation industry over the past few years, the last quarter of 2017 saw renewed interest from potential customers with regard to obtaining luxury interiors for their private planes.
“We are seeing many more prospective projects being discussed in the last quarter. A lot more interest in either refurbishing or procurement for VIP completion,” said Soret.
Most of the time, the main challenge is not in executing the design the client wants, but figuring out the client’s preferences at the design stage.
“From the design perspective, it’s always the most challenging to find out, ‘What is your style?’ That’s something nobody can describe very well.
“We work to find what it is someone really wants. Our job becomes trying to learn what they mean by what they say,” said Harvey.
Once that has been established, Harvey and his team go about ensuring that the elements that the client wants will pass aviation safety requirements.
Clients often make requests for familiar features from their home environment, in order to make long-haul flights more comfortable.
“I don’t think we ever think of anything being crazy because they can be somewhat out of the ordinary from an aviation standard but they’re trying to have a comfortable experience on the airplane,” said Harvey.
“If someone wants a full-featured massage chair, that may not be something you may find on an airplane but that’s something that would make their 14-hour trip more comfortable. If that’ s not available from an aviation manufacturer, that becomes a challenge, but we find a way to make that work.”
Increasingly, clients have asked for features such as console gaming capabilities for televisions on their planes, reliable internet connections for watching on-demand streaming content, and exercise requirement such as treadmills and stationary exercise bicycles. Often, Asian clients ask for a mahjong table, as well as a “high-quality rice cooker”.
The mahjong tables that go onto these planes can even shuffle the tiles automatically.
Soret recalled that one “wild request” he entertained from a client in the 1980s was to incorporate a hot tub into the aircraft’s interior. While it was possible back then, aviation safety regulations have since changed to disallow such a feature.
Another client wanted a 100 per cent silk carpet manufactured in Tibet for his airplane’s floor.
“The spectrum of requests we get, we’re used to getting pretty much everything and we usually find a solution for it,” said Soret.
Harvey says he has worked with “every kind of leather from every sort of animal leather is made from” for the interiors, including stingray hides. Other materials used for luxury interiors include precious stones, mother of pearl, malachite, marble and granite.
Some clients have even asked for 24-karat gold plating finishes, even on bathroom fixtures.
“I would say there’s very few things that we can’t figure out a way to do, or come up with something similar to satisfy the client’s desire,” said Soret.
Conceptualisation and design takes at least six months, depending on the requirements of the project. After the client has confirmed the design, it takes between 10 to 12 months to fabricate, engineer and install the interiors, usually on a Boeing 737 or Airbus A-320 aircraft.
AERIA uses 3-D technology and augmented reality (AR) software to render the interiors and help clients better visualise what the finished projects will look like. Clients can even use the AR software to select different colours or patterns on the materials and fixtures in the plane.
AERIA’s clients are made up of “some of the wealthiest and most powerful in the world”, including heads of state, governments which want a private plane for their officials, and high-net-worth individuals. Client confidentiality is of utmost importance and Soret and Harvey said they avoid discussing their clientele by name.
“There was a time when the Middle East was disproportionately represented as a major part of the customers. That’s not so much true today. They may be buying less but other parts of the world are bigger customers,” said Harvey.
In recent years, the Asian market “became big customers for business jets” and are showing interest in larger planes, he added.
Images of the completed projects are rarely made public although Soret says that every completed project looks like a “work of art”. When asked to give a ballpark figure of the cost of a luxury plane interior, Soret said with a smile, “Let me just tell you that it’s not cheap.”
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