Mideast still hungry for big, lavish VIP cabins

Dubai Air Show » 2007
November 6, 2007, 6:38 AM

The variety of types and average size of business and private aircraft is changing here in the Middle East, with new customers increasingly willing to fly in medium-sized jets that would have seemed out of the question in this market a few years ago. But Arab customers with deep pockets haven’t lost their appetite for the largest available VIP cabins, which is why the first examples of exclusively modified versions of the Airbus A380 and Boeing 787 widebody airliners will likely be seen in this part of the world first.

It is this demand that has completions houses such as Lufthansa Technik (Stand C518) preparing to expand their capacity to outfit these giants while also meeting still-bloated demand for VIP versions of narrowbody airliners, such as the Boeing Business Jets and Airbus Corporate Jetliners. By the end of 2010, the German group will have a second widebody completion line open at its Hamburg headquarters.

According to senior vice president sales and marketing Walter Heerdt, the timing of this expansion is right because he foresees the first A380 completions contract being awarded only next year, and the first 787s and 747-8s not likely to be available for delivery to VIP customers until 2010.

“The Middle East will be a major market for VIP widebodies,” said Heerdt, “in terms of both new aircraft types and retrofitted existing airliners.” He predicted that the 787 will be very popular in this sector, while adding that customers with a preference for four-engines will likely gravitate toward the new 747-8 as an alternative to the A380.

Meanwhile, LHT recently signed agreements to complete two VIP A330 twinjets, with work on the first to start in Hamburg next year with a view to delivering it in 2009. The second aircraft is due to reach the end of the company’s widebody completions line during the first quarter of 2010. LHT’s retrofit teams are currently reworking a McDonnell Douglas MD-11 and a 737-300, and its Hamburg center is essentially fully booked until the end of next year.

According to Heerdt, fresh demand for VIP versions of narrowbodied airliners is emerging from the fast-growing economies of Russia and China, and there is also considerable call for new government transports. Earlier this year, LHT delivered the first executive cabin for the A318 Elite, derived from the smallest member of the A320 airliner family, on which the ACJ is based. It is working on a second Elite and is to receive a third green aircraft next year for completion.

LHT has been working on prospective configurations for ultra-VIP versions of the A380 and 787. Heerdt told AIN that the widebody airframes provide ideal opportunities for his company to demonstrate its extensive engineering know-how as it looks for ways to maximize the available real estate within the constraints of the laws of physics. “Even German technology can’t make water lighter,” he said, when quizzed about the predictable requests for in-flight swimming pools and other extreme customer preferences. “In fact, a lot of our best work is never seen, such as the best-in-class weight and noise reductions we have achieved.”

Airbus is looking to improve the A380’s pressurization for a more comfortable cabin altitude, while Boeing is responding to BBJ customer feedback on pressurization and cabin humidity.

A leading overhaul and maintenance provider, LHT’s completions center pays close attention to providing easy access for repair teams. It is also pioneering the use of radio frequency identification tags and in-flight systems diagnostics to allow problems to be identified and the required parts to be stocked at an airport before the aircraft in need of repair lands there.

With its Lufthansa parent preparing to receive its first A380 airliners during 2009, LHT is preparing to maintain and overhaul the aircraft beginning at the end of next year through its Spairliners joint venture with Air France Industries. The German flagcarrier also holds 20 firm orders and 20 options for the 787, which gives LHT plenty of incentive to invest in the required engineering infrastructure and expertise to support the new aircraft.   

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