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Aircraft suppliers woo with new tech in a tablet-toting world

An interior section in an Airbus A310-304 is seen during the Abu Dhabi Air Expo at Al Bateen Executive Airport in Abu Dhabi, March 5, 2013.
An interior section in an Airbus A310-304 is seen during the Abu Dhabi Air Expo at Al Bateen Executive Airport in Abu Dhabi, March 5, 2013.

By Victoria Bryan

HAMBURG (Reuters) - Ever fancied seeing your name in lights as you boarded a plane? A hologram to take you through your in-flight entertainment options? Or how about something simpler, like an easy place to rest your tablet?

Exhibitors at the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg demonstrated these ideas and more as they sought to win airline customers with new seats, lighting and entertainment systems.

This may all seem like window dressing - but the commercial aircraft cabin interior market is estimated at almost $13 billion in annual sales in 2014 and expected to grow to over $17 billion in 2019, according to research by Markets and Markets.

Germany-based Diehl Aerosystems demonstrated a new cabin management system, whereby passengers could scan their boarding cards on a screen as they stepped onto the plane.

Lights would then come on in the panels of the aircraft with the passenger's seat number and name to help them to their seat, with the aim of speeding up boarding.

Diehl's other new technology on show at the fair included an on-board lavatory with sensors so you can raise and lower the lid and seat without touching them. "Hygiene is becoming an ever more important topic," its Chief Executive Rainer von Borstel told Reuters.

Thompson Aero Seating has a novel solution to the problem of fighting over armrests with your neighbor - staggered seats. And it says the design actually makes it possible to fit more seats into a cabin than usual. Finding that crucial first customer is proving tough, however.

"Because it's so different and radical, lots of people want to go second, but no one wants to be first," said Andy Morris, vice-president of sales and marketing at the Northern Ireland-based firm.

TABLET POWER

But much of the new technology at the Apr. 8-10 fair was designed with the tablet-toting traveler in mind.

Representatives of aerospace supplier Honeywell cited data estimating there will be 10 billion mobile devices, such as those made by Apple and Samsung in the world by 2016, for a global population of about 7.3 billion.

"The newest trends are all about tablet holders and power," Recaro Aircraft Seating CEO Mark Hiller told Reuters.

U.S. start-up Skycast, which provides airlines including Westjet with Samsung and Dell tablets to rent out to customers, was demonstrating a new tablet holder that can be easily fixed on to existing seats, holding anything from smartphones up to 10.3 inch tablets, including cases.

Established German seat manufacturer Recaro, which also makes child car seats, has also designed new tablet holders in its seats that are positioned higher up, meaning passengers can easily watch films and still use the table.

UK-based Acro Aircraft Seating meanwhile has designed a new tablet table aimed at low-cost carriers, such as customer Spirit Airlines. The table holds only a tablet and a drink.

EYE TECH

The increasing use of tablet technology made In Flight Entertainment (IFE) a hot issue at the Hamburg fair this year, with the organizers having to put up a temporary building to accommodate a 10 percent increase in the space requested by exhibitors active in this area.

UK-based aerospace and defense manufacturer BAE Systems is teaming up with Samsung to come up with an IFE system based around tablet devices. Replacing traditional seat-back entertainment systems with tablets on wide-bodied aircraft could save between 2,000 and 3,000 pounds in weight, BAE's director of cabin programs, Jared Schoemaker, said.

BAE said the use of tablets could be taken further. Cabin crew could use a smartphone with fingerprint technology to alter lighting on board, dim windows or adjust the amount of power going to each seat. They could even use Samsung's wearable technology devices on their wrists to receive alerts such as passenger calls.

Panasonic also said it was looking at wearable devices that passengers could use as boarding cards and showed off a new HD screen and a three-dimensional hologram that may one day be used for in-flight entertainment systems.

Meanwhile, Thales - one of the world's largest makers of IFE systems - unveiled a new business-class seat that allows passengers to control their entertainment options using eye movement, hand gestures or a touchpad built into the seat.

(Editing by Pravin Char)

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