Since the Wright Brothers got ‘Kitty Hawk’ off the ground a century ago (1903), the aviation industry has rarely weathered such turbulent times. In the main, traditional tanners have followed the piper of capricious fashion trends. But, tanners of aviation leathers find their sector being reinvented by new patterns in air travel. Survival depends on servicing niche markets and adding value for customers.


Perrone LLC have been a family-owned tannery since 1893. In 2000 three professional partners, two from the founding family, turned their expertise to aerospace upholstery leathers. Soon, they were struggling in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks.

The 23,000 sq ft (2,140 sq m) factory employs 32 people in the tannery cluster around Gloversville in upstate New York. Most of production comprises whole-hide bovine, sourced globally. Slaughter is at between eighteen months and two years. Hides are processed from the dried crust; which allows them to focus on dry-end processes and high quality finishing. The tannery can throughput 15,000 hides per week, about 825,000 feet. They process 1.2 million sq ft of leather annually for commercial, corporate and general aviation. Hides can be cut to order.

Leather cleaners and conditioners that keep the natural, pristine sheen of leather are an integral part of the product line. These incorporate a UV sunscreen to protect leather from fading, as well as giving off a ‘new leather’ fragrance! Shearling is another, smaller, line sold mainly for cockpit seating.

Economic downdraft

Dragged down by US economic uncertainty, the tannery is currently working to 30-40% of capacity. Commercial aviation, one of Perrone’s biggest markets, is still in a terminal slump and this discourages long-term contracts with airlines and, thus, leather suppliers. Perrone’s CEO, Bart Avery, added: ‘Corporations and their top people lost a great deal of money and many no longer have company or private incomes to spend on private jets.’ Buying forward to hedge problems is risky for tanners in such a vulnerable market. Perrone purchase on the spot but maintain about $1 million worth of inventory to meet tight deliveries without resorting to last-minute air freight.

Total global sales for aviation leathers are estimated at about $30 million and the US dominates this market. This figure seems low related to the glamourous image of the jet-owning classes but, as air travel finds new momentum and steadier markets, this could pick up.

Breaking the market barrier

But industrial downturn does not signify idle drifting. ‘We are perfecting a number of processes to be more competitive when the economy revives’, Bart Avery explained. Investment in electronic nesting tables should cut yield losses by 35-50%. More on-the-edge is research into flame retardant leathers. In addition to strict Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requirements, airline manufacturers, such as Boeing or Douglas, have additional specifications that encompass not only leathers but leather care products like sprays or wipes.

Flame proofing is the most challenging test for aerospace leathers and the real barrier to entering the market. This is what bumps up the price of tanning by about 25%. Not only the hide itself, but tannins, retans, fatliquors, chrome (if used) and finishing systems affect flammability, smoke release and fumes.

Perrone budget 5% of gross revenues for R&D. They are developing a chemical formula that will certify their leathers as flame proof. Avery stated that a breakthrough on this is expected soon.

Research is continuing into sanitising the removable leather head-rest covers supplied by Perrone. Legislators, however, hesitate to confer ‘germ-inhibiting’ status for porous surfaces, ie leather and textiles.

Embossing and branding

Perrone exhibit their superb collection of embossed leathers on their website. Florals, geometrics, reptiles, paisley and oceanic themes are impressively divided into sub-species and colourways.

Pick of the range are the aniline finishes in the Monarch, Duchess and Belgian Calf lines. Corporate and head-of-state jets demand flawless, full grain hides. The high price tag for these is offset somewhat by requiring the lightest of finishes to emphasise the pebble of the grain. These items are trade marked, registering the name and the product formula. This is not only for marketing. Avery explains: ‘It isn’t just any leather. It is made our specific way and is a different product from someone else’s.’ For the commercial aviation sector, finishing must be higher quality so that less perfect leathers look and perform comparably.

Market imbalances

About 15,000 business jets are registered in the United States. In Europe, this figure is 2,300. The gap indicates a healthy potential market in corporate air travel, but Europeans have been slower to understand the concept of fractional carriers (like time-sharing in the housing market) that is reshaping business travel.

Perrone has several hundred customers, including Delta, Com Air and American Trans Air. They are the official supplier to Bombardier’s Flexjets, a members’ charter fleet.

Mindful of new horizons, Perrone are looking beyond the US and Europe for growth. Bart Avery told Leather International that China was not a competitor but a growth market. They have an office in Hong Kong, positioned for when China’s millions take off as tourists and globetrotters.

Trimming costs, not making profits

Many firms that show healthier bottom lines do so from trimming costs, not increasing profits. Cost cutting is now a corporate benchmark and Perrone are capitalising on the cost effectiveness of leather – so effectively that one regional airline proposed a ten year guarantee for their leather seats!

The proliferation of e-tickets, transparent internet bookings and competitive pricing has created a brave new (cheaper) world of air travel. By optimising maintenance and aircraft usage, many low-cost fleet operators get 50% more flying hours out of planes and burn fuel more efficiently too.

With meticulous maintenance, leather seats last five or six years – helping the balance sheet of airborne entrepreneurs. The ease of maintenance, repairing on site and the elegant ageing properties of leather benefit the aviation industry. Avery explains: ‘It is hard to put a price tag on the satisfaction one feels when seated in a finely upholstered leather seat. Leather has a mystique even at high altitude.’

If only cows …

With many US tanneries closing, jobs being outsourced, or migrating to lower cost enclaves, survival relies more than ever on bespoke production and specialised markets. As air travel embarks on its second century, Perrone are using their considerable skills to ensure that customers are airborne on a wing and a hide.

Author’s note: Flexjet is the corporate name of Bombardier’s charter member’s corporate/business jet company. The type of Learjets in these images are the aircraft used in their fleet.

Aircraft interior photos courtesy of Bombardier Inc

* A weaker dollar has been a boon for United States exports, right? In theory, yes, but export advantages have been all but wiped out by the strong Euro. The US is also a champion importer and Perrone source most of their leathers in Europe; so they pay high prices, which cancels out most other benefits.

Purchasing leather in today’s seller’s market and then selling it in a buyer’s market is a double-edged sword, which adds up to a tough business for tanners.

* Dr Volkan Candar, of Cognis Kimya’s Leather Research & Development Division in Istanbul, explains about flame retardation in leather manufacturing and the environmental impact:

Flame retarding can be done through the application of a number of special chemicals based on antimony oxides, organic phosphoesters, as well as bromides. A combination of halogens with antimony, phosphor with antimony, or halogens with phosphor or nitrogen phosphor can create synergic effects.

It is also known that the presence of diammonium phosphate in leather can liberate non-flammable gas formations that dilute the concentration of flammable components in the gas phase.

Candar also explained that the presence of borax has a reducing effect on the flame temperature and contributes to the absorption of the heat released by the phase change.

Other known flame retardant components are chlorinated paraffins, hydroxymethyl phosphonium, boric acid, ammonium borate, sodium phosphate, zinc chloride and sodium stanate.

Many of the retardants are, or have become, environmentally unacceptable. This has been one factor hindering the development of a truly flame-proof process.

The following tests are used in testing for flame retardation in leathers: ASTM D 2863 77; ALCA E 50; CSE RF 1/75/A and CSE RF 3/77. These are in addition to aircraft manufacturers’ own specifications.