For some people a Boeing Business Jet is the ultimate status symbol, for others it is a business tool but for a few it is nothing less than a second home. Boeing realised that wealthy individuals and corporate CEOs who spend months each year travelling could use the space offered by the BBJ, a converted 737 airliner, to create a flying home-away-from-home.
What they needed was something beyond the cookie-cutter interiors offered by manufacturers and completion centres. Although luxurious, they often lack individuality. If you’re going to be at home in the air, why not apply the logic of interior design to your airplane? This is how the Skyhome project was born and the first BBJ was transformed into a personalised flying apartment.
The story starts with a long-range research and development project commissioned by Boeing. They asked design firm Leavitt Weaver to brainstorm ideas about jet interiors. They interviewed CEOs, looking at their favourite rooms, at what helped them relax; studying their hobbies and what helped them be productive. The result was a design study for interiors that exploited the BBJ’s size and flexibility to create truly personalised interiors, including new concepts in furniture, cabinetry and layout.
The thought balloon turned into a real airplane when a BBJ became available at short notice off the production line in early 2000. Boeing said ‘why don’t we apply this process to our own CEO and personalise a plane for him.’ It would be a company asset, personalised transport for the CEO and a showcase for what could be done with a BBJ.
The Skyhome team
To turn sketches into a real plane, Boeing put together a team of independent designers starting with Leavitt Weaver. “We’re just California farm boys,” jokes Stephen Weaver, co-founder of Leavitt Weaver and one of the Skyhome team. Reality belies their ‘aw shucks’ modesty. Weaver’s background is art and psychology (“both very useful in this job”) while Craig Leavitt collects minerals and rocks. They have been partners in the 12-person furniture and interior design firm for 28 years.
Don Thompson, a designer based in New York, and his company contributed their knowledge of aircraft design, engineering and certification. Bob Swain, an architect, completed the team and brought an insight into materials and manufacturing as well as a practiced architectural eye.
Designers vs. Completion Centres
The team began researching their client’s needs. Working with Phil Condit, who was CEO of Boeing at the time, they “wanted to give him a sanctuary to deal with the emotional and physical stress that comes with constant travel,” says Weaver. Through extensive discussion, they got “a sense of his lifestyle, his family and how he is going to use his airplane,” adds Don Thompson. The result was a highly individual design that reflected Condit’s personal taste and the way he worked and travelled.
It isn’t about a designer’s own taste or vision, but about delivering what the client wants. “Although the final design wasn’t necessarily something that came from our heart it was meant to be as close to what the client requested as we could possibly make it,” says Weaver. “We try to go deeper than the customer is asking for on the surface but to go deeper and produce something they’ll grow into.
Turning vision into reality proved to be a struggle. What often happens is that when owners work with completion centres or flight departments and ask for something unusual or one-off, the response is generally ‘that won’t work in an aeroplane,’ or ‘it’ll cost too much’ or ‘it’s a safety issue.’ Initially, this is what happened with Skyhome.
The team had their initial designs priced by three different completion centres and the quotes were sky-high: double or triple what they hoped to spend. They had to fight to show that the estimates were inflated by a ‘cover-your-ass’ factor by using comparisons with other projects. A three-day conference in New York which went through the details of the project resulted in more acceptable bids.
In a similar way, the Skyhome team had to fight to maintain their vision all the way through completion. There were thousands of pages of working drawings to be approved and members of team spent several months on site in Basle, Switzerland with the finishing shop. The designers recall countless thousands of small decisions that needed to be made on a daily basis that contributed to the overall look and feel of the plane.
Not only was there a creative tension with the experts at Jet Aviation, “there were always accountants at Boeing who figured they could dump us and have Jet Aviation finish the work,” says Weaver. But accountants just don’t have a designer’s eye. “Just because you can’t see the difference in the [materials] samples doesn’t mean that there aren’t differences,” explains Weaver. Ultimately, the designers won through to the end.
Home, sweet skyhome
The aircraft was given its luxury interior in Switzerland by Jet Aviation based on the Skyhome team’s designs. The result resembles an “Americanised English club,” says Weaver. Despite the modern setting of a corporate aircraft, the interior was deliberately designed to feel familiar, comfortable and home-like: a comfortable, tailored suit rather than a razor-sharp designer jacket.
Antique wood veneers make the cabinets look like family heirlooms. The lounge area is arranged like a comfortable family room at home, with a TV, book shelves and a low table for snacks and magazines. Polarised pieces of film for window shades allow occupants to graduate the light levels in the aircraft, rather than alternate between brilliant daylight and darkness.
Attention to detail runs through the plane. Although the handles and knobs on the drawers and cupboards had to be certified for use on board, they are plated with bronze which can tarnish naturally to create an old-fashioned, worn look.
The generous armchairs sport leather that was custom finished by Arthur Edelman Ltd. to make them look appropriately worn and older. The whole ambiance is set off by classic V’soske carpets that were specially woven using subtly shifting shades of silk and wool dye to create a sense of age and depth.
The plane also features architectural innovations. The crew can remove part of the bulkhead between the galley and the dining area to make a buffet space. The office area has a clever Murphy bed which allows it to double up as a bedroom and still have a proper, lie-flat bed. The master bedroom suite is similarly equipped to create a sitting room and office for the principal’s wife.
In late 2001, just as the Skyhome aircraft was nearing completion, a spate of corporate scandals and the aftermath of 9/11 made highly personalised aircraft for CEOs look like irrational exuberance. Boeing reigned in publicity around the plane soon after it took to the air. Now that aircraft sales are growing again, the veil is beginning to lift. “We hadn’t heard from Boeing for a couple of years but they’re starting to call again,” says Weaver.
Boeing’s Skyhome BBJ is still in the company fleet and it is used all the time by company executives. Boeing expects to sell more planes like it. The market still exists. While 60-70 percent of BBJ sales are to heads of corporations and heads of state who tend to look at fairly standardised interiors, the rest are bought by wealthy individuals and chairmen of certain non-US corporations who view it as more of a personal airplane. “They want to put their own stamp on the interior,” says Steven Hill, president of Boeing Business Jets.
To create a new, bespoke interior for a BBJ requires foresight as well as imagination. An aircraft ordered today will leave the production line in Fall 2006 and fitting out by a completion centre might take another six months; longer for a truly customised aircraft. To take a recent example, Multiflight’s BBJ 2 took a year to complete and the process cost $29m (on top of the price of the airframe).
“It’s about personalisation and you can’t get it from a completion centre,” says Steven Hill, President of Boeing Business Jets. “By separating design and focusing it with designers on the individual’s taste you are freer to invent and be innovative,” adds Hill. It’s not that completion centres don’t have good designers but they tend to focus on price, schedule, certification and engineering.
Don Thompson has been involved in bespoke jet interiors for decades. Over that time he has dealt with lots of clients who are on their second or third aircraft. He observes that as they gain more experience with aircraft interiors they are more likely to hire an independent designer to make their plane more personal. After all, would you let a builder do the interior design of your new home? As the Skyhome project proves, it takes persistence, vision and design expertise to get the plane you really want.
Boeing: www.boeing.com/commercial/bbj, 1-206-655-9800
Leavitt Weaver: www.leavitt-weaver.com, 1-209 521 5125
Bob Swain: www.bobswain.com, 1-206 784 4822 extension 102
Don Thompson: firstname.lastname@example.org, 917 733 6411