Though the worldwide economy is still on shaky ground, the demand for ultra-luxury air travel is on a rapid ascent.
And that's good for the Tucson operation of B/E Aerospace, a fast-growing maker of "super- first-class" aircraft interiors for international commercial airlines.
Demand for the company's deluxe cabin accoutrements has prompted a significant local expansion.
"Over the last two years, we've nearly doubled in size, to over 650 employees, just in Tucson," said Doug Rasmussen, vice president and general manager of B/E's super-first-class operation.
The company recently completed an expansion of its plant on South Pantano Road near 29th Street that boosted its floor space by one-third, to 120,000 square feet.
Inside, on B/E's sprawling production floor, a small army of technicians work like bees on various versions of its mini-suites in areas dedicated to long-term international customers including Lufthansa and Emirates airlines.
"Our fundamental product is a seat that makes into a full, lie-flat bed, and then surrounding furniture, which provides a level of privacy," Rasmussen said. "Some are fully enclosed, some are partially enclosed. It depends on what the customer wants."
In one area of the factory, a group of workers installs mechanical actuators and electronics, while several others painstakingly cover cabinet components with fine tan leather.
In another area, workers mate components and systems for mini-cabins, featuring wide, lie-flat seats made at a B/E plant in Miami.
Other amenities include 27-inch flat-screen TVs, Internet access ports, a crendenza with pull-out desk, personal mini-bars and a touch-screen control panel to run it all. Gold plating on metal fittings lends an air of poshness you'd find in a five-star hotel.
While such luxury may seem like an example of corporate excess, amenities like flat beds are worth the money to globetrotting executives and VIPs.
"There's a really good reason. If you're regularly traveling between Los Angles and Dubai, or Houston and Doha (Qatar), you're on a flight that's somewhere between 15 and 16, 17 hours," Rasmussen said.
"If you can climb on board and sit down and enjoy a nice meal, get a good eight or nine hours of sleep on a bed that lies flat ... it allows people to arrive in much better condition."
Fitting all that luxury into a small space and making it convertible for different uses - while complying with "massive" amounts of Federal Aviation Administration rules for safety and fire-resistance - is no small design feat, Rasmussen noted.
Likewise, B/E's furnishings must be lightweight to help airlines save every ounce of fuel.
"Weight is at a huge premium - virtually everything we do is made out of composites, and a growing percentage is using carbon-fiber as the base material for structural components," Rasmussen said.
The structural panels of the company's classy cubicles are made of a fire-resistant composite featuring a shell over a lightweight, hexagonal-cell paper core. The material is made in Nogales, Sonora, at a maquiladora under contract to B/E that employs more than 500 people.
The company's expertise in creating super-premium airline seating was the result of B/E's 2002 acquisition of Tucson-based business-jet cabinetmaker Bomhoff Inc., said Rasmussen, who joined Bomhoff as a senior manager shortly after its founding in 1999.
Bomhoff employed more than 200 people until the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks curtailed its business, forcing a drop to as few as 50 workers before B/E stepped in, Rasmussen said.
"The cabinetmaking skills for the corporate business-jet married up with the seating expertise, and that's what's fueled the growth of this business," he said.
Foreign carriers only
You won't find B/E Tucson's super-first-class mini-suites on any U.S. domestic airlines, though other parts of the company make standard and business-class seating and business-jet furnishings.
B/E's luxuriant people pods are installed mostly on Boeing 777 and Airbus A380 wide-body intercontinental jets for customers including top airlines in the Middle East (Emirates, Etihad Airways, Qatar Airways, Saudia), Europe (British Airways, Air France, Swiss International) and Asia (Japan Airlines, Thai Airways, Asiana, Malaysia Airlines).
Airborne luxury doesn't come cheap. A round-trip, 16-hour flight flight from Los Angeles to Dubai booked on Emirates in July costs about $2,600 in economy class or nearly $10,000 in business class. The tab for a first-class ticket that will put you in a B/E suite on the same flights: $26,000.
Yet despite the lingering global economic uncertainty, there's no shortage of demand for B/E's luxurious local product.
In a report last year, the research firm Frost & Sullivan found that the global market for commercial-aviation cabin interiors was worth nearly $4.5 billion in 2010 and estimated that would grow to $10.3 billion by 2020, driven by orders from the Asia Pacific region, China, India and the Middle East.
Though the publicly traded B/E Aerospace doesn't break out individual business segment results, the company reported that 2012 revenues rose nearly 23 percent to $803 million, while operating earnings jumped nearly 27 percent to $138 million. The company's Nasdaq stock has risen 47 percent in the last year.
Local skilled workers
Rasmussen said the company has been able to find many skilled production workers locally, including cabinetmakers and upholsterers.
"We've been fortunate, we've been able to find skilled production and assembly personnel," Rasmussen said. "We struggle finding the right level of talent for engineering. We're recruiting nationally for engineers, program managers and some other technical roles."
The company doesn't divulge its pay scale, but Rasmussen said the company offers pay and benefits "consistent with industry standards."
Rasmussen noted that he's recently spoken with Jeff Goldberg, dean of the University of Arizona College of Engineering, about strengthening its ties with the school.
B/E already sponsors some UA engineering projects, such as a synchronized power aircraft cabin-door system demonstrated at the UA's Design Day event in April.
Goldberg said B/E is a valuable partner for its engineering program.
"In an airplane, lighter is better and low-power is better," Goldberg said. "It's a really nice place where you can go and learn about how to integrate electrical, mechanical and manufacturing, because you have to manufacture all these things in the seats."
ABOUT THE SERIES
Made in Tucson is an occasional series about local manufacturers.
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At a glance
• Company: B/E Aerospace Inc.
• Address: 1851 S. Pantano Road
• Business: Maker of "super first-class" aircraft interiors
• Top local executive: Doug Rasmussen, vice president and general manager
• Local employees: 680
• Website: www.beaerospace.com
Did you know?
B/E Aerospace arrived in Tucson when the Florida-based company acquired Bomhoff Inc., a maker of cabinetry for business jets, in 2002.
Contact Assistant Business Editor David Wichner at email@example.com or 573-4181.