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By Guy Bird for Business Jet Interiors International, Apr 2009

What can aircraft interior designers learn from their automotive colleagues – and is it all one-way traffic?

Picture the scene: The high-powered executive is heading to his private airport in the back of his Bentley Flying Spur, sitting in one of the two huge bucket seats covered in hand-picked hide and divided by a sweeping burr walnut-covered centre console. Flicking a switch by his backseat he’s able to electronically move the front passenger seat forward to create more rear legroom. More perfectly weighted knurled chrome switches and ‘organ stop’ controls accent the space perfectly. Sliding back the smooth-action ribbed veneer cubbyhole cover he reveals a beautiful polished metal ashtray with the Bentley ‘B’ logo atop its lid, fitting snugly in a space made especially for it. It’s enough to make anyone consider taking up smoking and is a great detail that contributes to the feeling that the Flying Spur is £120,000 or so very well spent. But when he gets out, walks across the tarmac and steps up onto his private business jet – costing millions not thousands – the interior experience is often a major let-down. He might not take up smoking but he’ll probably need a drink.

When the high-powered exec gets out of his plush Bentley and steps into his private  jet, costing millions not thousands, the interior experience is often a let-down. He might not take up smoking but he’ll probably need a drink

Gary Doy, is the co-founder of Design Q, a specialist company in luxury sports car design and business jet interior projects as diverse as exterior styling work for the Ferrari FXX to building a 4.5-tonne complete flight deck for Bombardier. He explains the industry differences well: “It’s a real paradox, customers pay much more for a luxury jet than a luxury car but in many of those jets much of the detail is not very well considered in terms of component use and panel gaps. It’s not at the same level.”

So why is there so often such a disparity and what can business jet interiors learn from the automotive industry? Kris Tomasson, new design director at NYC-based design and branding specialists the Arnell Group, but very recently head of Gulfstream's design studio (and before that a designer at BMW and Ford) is also well placed to see both sides. “There’s definitely a lot we can learn from the auto industry”, he says. “It’s is very good at perceived quality in terms of fit and finish, minimizing material breaks while the aerospace industry are more like cabinet makers.” The widely different volumes built in the two respective industries explain part of the problem as Tomasson points out: “There are far fewer business or elite travelers so the competition just isn’t there.” Replacement cycles are also slower so innovation and progress takes longer to filter through, as Ken Dowd, a one-time Ford designer and now vice-president of the aviation studio at Teague, Boeing's long-term industrial design partner, states: “the auto market is very large with a much higher turnover of products while a new plane only comes out every 10-15 years.” In comparison new cars typically now have a six-year product cycle with a facelift after every three.

“The auto market is very large with a much higher turnover of products while a new plane only comes out every 10-15 years” 

Bigger volumes in the car industry can help with economies of scale, but Design Q’s Doy sees other process benefits that the business jet industry could learn from: “Tooling for automotive parts is very expensive and given the volumes involved you have to define the product very carefully. With 100 or more major elements inside you don’t want to be making mistakes on fit and finish. This process teaches automotive designers how to make parts look good in terms of offset, grain and fit, even if the piece price is inexpensive. It’s not just about volumes, but about focus too.” Cases-in-point are the super high quality interiors on high luxury saloons from Bentley who only make 5000-10,000 cars a year and Rolls-Royce that doesn’t do many more than 1000 per annum. Even top-end models will cost much more than £250,000-300,000.

The good news for the business jet interior industry is that much of this automotive expertise is now coming through on forthcoming aerospace products. In his one and a half years at Gulfstream, Tomasson says he put in place many automotive working practices including setting up a new open-plan studio in Savannah, Georgia. For Gulfstream’s new flagship plane – the G650 – Tomasson says he approached the whole ‘ground-up’ project “as you would a car programme. We did mock-ups in foam, prototyping, worked with CAD data, A-surfacing and more. Right now the plane is at the feasibility stage and should launch in 2012.” Previously, he says some aircraft interior designers would only make simple 2D elevation view sketches at a level comparable to designs for a domestic interior with many of the parts rudimentarily engineered and left to fine cabinet makers to make fit. As he adds “They never got down to the level of detail you need when dealing with 3D CAD data.”

Different suppliers

In terms of content, Tomasson was keen to integrate the latest consumer electronics such as capacitive touch screens like on the iPhone. Dampening is another good example of the sort of ‘surprise and delight’ he was after so that ashtrays close like ‘draw-close’ units in modern kitchens. Indeed, he sought out different suppliers for some of these features, looking to the auto industry for seating and the consumer electronics field for switches, damming some business jet industry suppliers in the process: “Some of them are appalling. They’re so complacent and as there’s not much competition they charge a fortune for the quality you get.”

Aside from new attention to detail, Tomasson says the G650 will offer a cleaner aesthetic representing modern world luxury epitomized by high-end furniture and cars like Bentleys and Aston Martins. He also promises the G650 will be good enough not to need much customizing with 12 different floor plans offered with many material variations. As it’s far from on sale, he can’t say too much more but does indicate that the G250 mock-up revealed at the NBAA show in Orlando 2008 gives a taster of how the G650 will look. In the suppliers’ partial defense, Teague’s Dowd says it can be difficult to design quality on small volume runs with lots of regulations on safety but does add that 3D tools originally developed for the auto industry and industrial design products are now getting more use for aerospace engineering. As he adds, getting to the nub of the problem: “In order to get this higher quality interior you do have to spend more money, but the aircraft industry is pretty mature now. Look at the 787 and 747 and you’ll see a much, much higher level of sophistication – all digitally produced.”

“A lot of aircraft design is not particularly inspired by the technologies used in that industry. I think it’s more people trying to interpret domestic or terrestrial interiors in the air. I feel that is a fundamentally stupid approach”

Getting designers from outside of the industry involved is also shaking up standards. Acclaimed product designer Marc Newson is one such example picked by Qantas to be its official creative director and design its new A380 Airbus interior. The designer is best known for numerous iconic pieces of furniture – including the Lockheed lounge that took its inspiration from an aircraft fuselage and helped launch his career – but he has considerable aircraft experience. He designed the interior of the Dassault Falcon 900B in 1999 and the Kelvin 40 Concept jet for Foundation Cartier before more commercial projects like the SkyBed Business sleeper for Qantas in 2003. Although not a business jet, the first class sections of the Qantas A380 have many business jet touches due to Newson’s involvement from the start as he enthuses: “You don’t often get the opportunity to work on the development of an aircraft in parallel. It’s normally shoehorning stuff in. Consequently there are a lot more things you can do.”

Thus he was able to design the interior cladding for the portholes and install two-stage shutters for them – opaque and full blackout – all electrically activated from the first class seat’s portable console. But despite his outsider status within aircraft design, his influences for the project come from classic jets like the De Havilland Comet and Boeing 707, as he explains: “A lot of design in aircraft is not particularly inspired by aircraft or the technologies you use in that industry. I think it’s more people trying to interpret domestic or terrestrial interiors in the air that I feel is a fundamentally stupid approach. A lot of these details like the Airbus’s ‘gaspers’ – one’s a light and one’s for aircon – were developed for aircraft, but people stopped using them in the 1970s because they thought they were a bit too utilitarian. But I love that aesthetic.” Newson sees this side of his business expanding too and has recently set up a separate company called MN Aerospace to cater for it. Just like a foreigner visiting your country maybe it takes an outsider to see what is great about what’s right in front of you. Now that those ‘foreigners’ are populating the aircraft interior industry overall quality can only improve, as Gulfstream’s ex-designer Kris Tomasson concludes, in comparing a Bentley to the new G650: “we’re aiming for a compatible experience”. High-powered execs the world over will be breathing a collective sigh of relief.

One-way traffic? How aero influences auto

The automotive interiors industry is far from a panacea of design forward-thinking though. Teague’s Dowd, who has sat in both camps cites DVD headrest systems that have only recently populated car interiors but have been on aircraft “for aeons” as one example. A more fundamental aerospace design ‘given’ – weight reduction – that has been forgotten by the car industry over the years as cars add more safety kit and gadgets is another area the auto industry can learn from, as Design Q’s Doy explains: “When I pick up any part from the aircraft industry it’s light. But do that in the car industry and I’m shocked at the weight of almost anything from the air vents upwards.” Optimization programmes are helping says Doy and as CO2-related taxes and legislation tighten throughout the world, carmakers are once again looking to shed the pounds – witness the Mazda 2 being lighter than the outgoing model – an almost unheard of transition in recent years.

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