Flying in Highlands style
-October 25th, 2018
Although chances are most of us haven’t stopped to consider how upholstery affects our in-flight experiences, the folks at Spokane Valley-based Highlands Upholstery say designing comfortable aircraft interiors is their main area of expertise.
Founded in 2009 by Charlie and Karrie Hatridge, Highlands offers upholstery repair and installation for airplane, boat, car, and restaurant interiors.
“Airplane people are some of the nicest to work with, and we’ve done some really fun stuff,” says Hatridge. “Over the years, we’ve developed a passion for aviation and making flying a better experience for pilots and passengers.”
Last year, the company made about $267,000 in revenue and is hoping to expand this year.
“We’d like to do more work on private jets, as that’s where we make most of our profits,” he says. “If we add more of that work, it’s possible we could double our revenue.”
Hatridge says Highlands is currently a joint partnership, with profits being split between the couple and their friend and co-owner, Mike Smerker.
Smerker has been employed with Highlands for eight years and a partner in the business for the last five.
“We’ve occasionally had more employees, but Mike is the only one who’s stayed on with us this long,” says Karrie Hatridge. “It takes a while to train people, and many discover it’s just not for them.”
She says this year the company is considering adding more employees and forming a second division to handle restaurant interior work, which would enable the three co-owners to focus strictly on aircraft interiors.
Charlie Hatridge says he’s worked as an upholsterer since he was 14 years old, learning the trade from his father, and Karrie has helped him with the business since the two married in 1981.
“We started out doing work on car and boat interiors, but eventually we figured someone has to take care of airplanes,” he says. “It’s not like regular upholstery, it’s kind of a niche specialty. We were lucky enough to have a friend mentor us at the start, teaching us the ins and outs of the industry.”
Originally from California, the couple first started offering airplane upholstery in 1982 at a Federal Aviation Administration repair station near Marysville, Wash., before moving to North Idaho in 2004 and finally settling in Spokane Valley in 2014.
“When we first moved out this way, the business was sharing a hangar with Northwest Aircraft Solutions out at Spokane International Airport, on the Geiger field side,” says Hatridge. “But once they moved, we couldn’t afford it on our own, so we created our own space.”
The business now operates out of a 1,200-square-foot shop behind the Hartridges’ home in Spokane Valley.
Hatridge says Highlands services include repair and installation of upholstery, carpeting, vinyl, wall paneling, headliners, glare shields, and interior window plastic.
“I’d say about 95 percent of the work we do is on aircraft, with some boat repair and restaurant interiors in the slow season,” he says.
All three of Highlands’ co-owners share the upholstery work, and the company also contracts with the Letters, Jackets & More Store at 8608 E. Trent to offer custom embroidery services.
“We mark out exactly where we need the stitching, then send them the design and material to print it on,” he says. “People add everything from names to animals and logos.”
Hatridge says the process of upholstering an airplane involves taking everything out of the plane’s interior in an organized fashion.
“We have to keep everything in order and organized or it will take twice as long to put back together,” he says. “Because we get down to the materials beneath, we sometimes see stuff that annual aircraft inspectors miss.”
Although the company’s upholsterers aren’t certified to do any repairs to the aircraft itself, they do make a note of any needed repairs and work with aircraft mechanics when needed, Hatridge says.
“Most of what we do is just making sure the mechanics of everything works right and check for things like cracks or stress on parts,” he says. “Sometimes, we’ll add additional soundproofing or foam insulation, but any actual repairs need to be done by a mechanic.”
Hatridge says part of what makes aircraft upholstering so time consuming and expensive is that all of the materials used must meet fire-safety standards.
“The FAA requires all materials be fire certified,” he says. “Everything from carpet, cloth, vinyl, leathers, and glue all have to be flame retardant, which is where the expense comes in. Regular upholstery places don’t have to do all that.”
Karrie Hatridge says Highlands obtains its materials from suppliers all over the country.
“We have our favorites but will occasionally look for others if a client has a special request,” she says. “Many of our suppliers are on the East Coast, but we do have some on the West Side.”
While some jobs involve traveling out of state to meet with clients and work on their aircraft, the Hatridges say most of the company’s work is done at local aircraft hangars or in their backyard shop.
“We get most of our clients through word-of-mouth, our website, and Facebook,” she says. “Most of our customers are private aircraft owners.”
During summer months when pilots are spending more time in the air and aircraft jobs are scarce, Hatridge says the business compensates with more restaurant interior work.
The Hatridges say Highlands has worked with most of the aircraft services located at Felts Field, including Northwest Flight Service, Western Aviation, Moody Aviation, and Eagle Helicopters Inc. Some of its other regular clients include Seattle-based Erin Air Inc., Toro Viejo Mexican restaurants, and Washington Trust Bank.
Hatridge says the amount of work the business does varies, but usually includes a couple of projects a month.
“We’re able to come in and set everything up in the hangar and do all of our sewing and everything right there,” he says. “Smaller planes can take about four weeks to complete, larger ones take six weeks to a month.”
He says the typical cost of a new interior for a smaller plane runs between $4,000 and $5,000, while larger and custom jobs can be closer in price to $10,000 or more.
“The most expensive job we’ve ever done was a $67,000 interior for a Cessna Citation X,” he says.
Hatridge says the company once even had a customer fly in from France to have the interior of his jet matched to the style and color of his Maserati.
“Some requests can get a bit out there, but a there are clients that can afford those luxuries,” he says. “If you’ve ever ridden in a private jet, you know how smooth a ride it can be, and it’s easier to understand why people spend extra to make it that way.”