Passengers are traveling with more personal electronic devices than ever before, and that has presented airlines with a unique challenge: How to keep customers happy by maximizing the onboard power supply — without straining flight-critical systems.
To make it more complicated, passengers are traveling with devices that require a variety of power outlets: 115V AC and high power USB outlets are most common, and wireless charging such as Qi is getting some attention. But the question remains: Which do you need? As we discover below, that depends.
“USB Type-C power delivery modes allow larger tablets to be used inflight and it also supports fast-charging for smartphones” — Gary Kaplan, Product Marketing Manager at Panasonic Avionics
According to SITA’s 2017 Passenger Trends IT Survey, almost 98 percent of airline passengers are flying with at least one electronic device, and as many as 70 percent of passengers carry two or more devices.
Meanwhile, consumer trends show that while most laptops — which require AC outlets — are still popular with a large number of flyers, most passengers use one or more USB-enabled devices during the journey.
According to statistics compiled by the Airline Passenger Experience Association:
It’s clear from these figures that high-power USB outlets are in the greatest demand — but does that mean getting rid of AC power altogether?
Not necessarily, says Gary Kaplan, Product Marketing Manager at Panasonic Avionics.
As he explains, AC power still has a role to play in powering thirsty laptops, but the development of USB Type-C power outlets are changing the power game, supporting more of passengers’ must-have electronics onboard.
“USB Type-C power delivery modes allow larger tablets to be used inflight and it also supports fast-charging for smartphones,” he says.
Aircraft electrical supply is limited — so ensuring critical aircraft operations is a top priority.
For safety reasons, original-equipment manufacturers (OEMs) set limits on the power distributed to passenger applications. Aircraft power-management systems dynamically distribute the power supply to seats; during periods of peak demand, power will go into “restricted mode” by cutting-off supply to non-critical electrical equipment.
The requirements and limitations for in-seat power supply differ depending on aircraft type, so it’s important to select passenger power supply solutions that reduce the chances negatively impacting the passenger experience.
In Panasonic’s case, the company works with OEMs to ensure its equipment offers optimal power delivery and aircraft safety, while keeping as many passengers plugged-in as possible throughout the flight.
“As we’ve designed new seat boxes and new power supply, we’ve ensured new equipment is more efficient,” says Eric Canal Director of Product Management at Panasonic Avionics. “The A350 Airbus, for example, required high levels of power efficiency, to supply both AC and USB.”
It took some time, but the electronics industry has finally settled on the Qi standard — pronounced CHEE and named after the Chinese word for energy flow — when it comes to induction, or wireless, charging. The deal was sealed when Apple chose the Qi standard for wireless charging on the iPhone X.
In the airline context, Qi already being considered as part of the future of the premium flying experience. However, it’s still early days for the technology, and it’s important to note that Qi is not an efficient mode of power supply yet, even on the ground. It charges devices slowly.
And though some manufacturers have embraced this wireless charging feature, we can expect a delay before the millions of cord-dependent smartphones, tablets and laptops in the market are ready to become untethered.
In the meantime, passengers will be using their electronic devices on the plane as on the ground, and carrying their cables along. That means airlines will need to offer the combination of AC and USB — and possibly even Qi — power sources that best meets their brand objectives. One thing is clear, though: The people demand power.