New Airbus Planes Will Track Your Every Move Through the Cabin

When new Airbus planes roll off the assembly line in the next couple years, they will be equipped to follow your every move through the aircraft cabin. That might sound scary, but it’s meant to improve your experience on a future flight.

Airbus’s new “connected experience” cabin will track nearly everything passengers do onboard, including what movies they watch, what meals or drinks they order, where they place their carry-on bags—even when and how often they go to the bathroom.

“These components are already flying on our so-called flight lab to really test it in flight conditions,” says Ingo Wuggetzer, vice president of cabin marketing at Airbus. That “flight lab” is a test cabin aboard an Airbus A350 aircraft, and Airbus is working with airlines to roll it out on their planes as soon as 2021.

The connected cabin is essentially a series of sensors throughout most places in the plane—on passengers’ seats, in the aisles, within the galley, and even the lavatory door latch—all routed into the aircraft Wi-Fi, depending on what data an airline is interested in. “We connect all relevant things in the aircraft cabin in order to deliver a more personalized service to the passenger,” says Wuggetzer. The data is sent to a large, lightweight LED screen in the back of the plane, as well as iPads handled by the cabin crew.

Some of the elements currently undergoing tests in the A350 cabin include overhead bins with indicators that show whether there is empty space. It will also appear on flight attendants’ tablets where bin space is left on the plane, in order to streamline the boarding process.

Airbus is developing an app to go with this test cabin, which passengers will be able to download onto their mobile phones to further control their in-flight experience. Seats will have sensors connected to the app, so passengers can use it to recline instead of pushing a button on the armrest.

That flight attendant call button? It’s now passé. Fliers will be able to request drinks and snacks through an app that will ping crew tablets in the galley. “The same device that moves your seats, you can remote order into the galley,” Wuggetzer explains. “So you ask, ‘I would like to have a coffee,’ and the crew sees that in the galley, and they can right away deliver it to you.”

The sensors on the seat have a double purpose. The crew will also be able to detect information about armrests and seatbelts, so they won’t have to walk through the cabin checking each one. Instead, if a passenger’s seat is not in the fully upright position or they aren’t buckled in, flight attendants will get a notification on their tablets showing which seat needs to be stowed or seatbelt needs to be buckled.

The cabin also features cameras outside the plane’s lavatories. Using the app, passengers will be able to see how many people are waiting to use the bathroom (faces are blurred out for privacy), and the app will estimate how long the wait is to use the facilities. Inside the lavatory, there will be sensors to indicate to crew when toilet paper, tissues, soap, or other supplies need to be restocked, as well as a “smart mirror” that will display information about the flight and other details.

All of the data will benefit airlines and help them optimize their cabin layouts and what they’re selling to passengers. Food and beverage, in-flight entertainment, and duty-free items, for instance, will be tracked and customized to what passengers have purchased in the past. “Based on history data of the flight and history data of the passenger, you really can optimize the catering and provide things people would love to have on this flight,” Wuggetzer says.

Airlines will be able to add new features and elements to Airbus’s connected experience platform. “It’s very open to new features, creative ideas,” Wuggetzer explains. “It’s easy to install and add maybe other elements.” The technology platform can also be added to cabins on brand new planes or retrofitted to older ones.

After the test period, Airbus is aiming to roll out the connected cabin experience for customers on its new single-aisle planes in 2021, followed by its A350 jets in 2023.

Wuggetzer says his team is pushing to roll out the technology at a fast pace. “Everybody wants to have it,” he says.

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