Going Wireless: Bluetooth Comes to the Cabin

Panasonic Avionics< Panasonic Avionics
02/22/22 3 MIN READ

Although Bluetooth has existed since 1998, the year 2016 was a particular game-changer for the wireless connectivity solution.

That’s the year when Apple removed the headphone jack from iPhones and rolled out its wireless earbuds known as AirPods. Seemingly overnight, the market for wireless headphones exploded. Now, that industry is expected to reach nearly $46 billion by 2026, with millions of units sold every year as more and more consumer electronics also remove their headphone jacks.

Wide customer adoption means that the airline industry can expect growing demand for wireless solutions in the cabin.

Panasonic Avionics has been preparing for several years. We first integrated Bluetooth into the X Series in-flight entertainment system in 2015. Since then, we have been continually testing different elements of Bluetooth usage and performance in the commercial aircraft environment. Along with X Series, our NEXT Series employs a patented industry leading solution to deliver an augmented cinematic experience in every cabin class. This work has allowed us to uncover a number of opportunities and challenges to large-scale Bluetooth integration, and set the stage for wider Bluetooth usage.

Unique Challenges Inside the Cabin

The primary use cases in which a passenger might use Bluetooth are: 1) to stream audio from the in-flight entertainment system (e.g. video, audio, and gaming); and 2) to use a wireless device to control the IFE system (e.g. play/pause). This is an attractive concept to airline passengers, particularly as they look for ways to use their devices more and aircraft-provided surfaces less when interacting with in-flight content.

Panasonic Avionics’ recently unveiled collaboration with United Airlines on the airlines’ United Next revamp shows that there is an appetite in the industry to go wireless. Saudi Arabian Airlines also recently signed on with Panasonic to bring Bluetooth to their new Airbus cabins.

However, it’s also true that an airplane full of people simultaneously using Bluetooth poses particular and persistent challenges. Chief among them is interference, due to a surplus of overlapping connections. The number of passengers isn’t the only intervening factor, either. Crew and passenger Wi-Fi systems, microwaves in the galley, and reflective surfaces within the aircraft cabin also play a role in the integrity of Bluetooth connections. As well, some OEM aircraft configurations restrict the number of available Bluetooth channels. However, Panasonic Avionics’ IFE Bluetooth solution uses a unique approach in which emitted Bluetooth signal levels are optimized for each passenger’s personal space. At the same time, we are continuing our research to reduce the likelihood of interference and cross-connections between seats. Airlines considering integrating aircraft-wide Bluetooth service into their passenger experiences may have unique opportunities for presenting the service to customers.

Making Room for Innovation

Although Bluetooth and other wireless devices are becoming more popular, they are not yet totally ubiquitous. In fact, many consumers still prefer wired headphones, both for sound quality and for comfort. In a news story, NBC reported that dongles—adapters that allow people to continue using conventional headphones with jack-less devices—are still a very lucrative business; in fact, they’re expected to bring in $25 billion by 2027.

There is clear evidence that one single audio connection standard is far, far off in the distance, and that consumers are willing to figure out a go-between. It gives the industry a bit of breathing room as connectivity leaders work out Bluetooth challenges. Ensuring every passenger can connect in some way could potentially present airlines with new, creative marketing or ancillary sales opportunities – for instance, offering premium-quality headphones/earbuds in the cabin. Taking an open-minded, flexible approach to Bluetooth capabilities can help airlines lay the groundwork for a wireless future while also evolving their offerings alongside passenger trends. At the end of the day, that’s progress.

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