Panasonic’s high-tech airplane seats bring luxury amenities to coach

Alongside all the expected 4K televisions, camcorders, and cameras at Panasonic’s CES 2015 booth, the company showed off something less expected: four airplane coach seats. But they were far from ordinary. Those who had the chance to sit in one and rest their feet were actually experiencing a next-generation cabin of economy class seats that could redefine what it means to fly “cattle class.”

Embedded in the back of the soft leather seats is the next version of Panasonic’s X Series inflight entertainment (IFE) system. At first glance, the seats, which Panasonic calls Jazz Seats, look like those in any ordinary economy class cabin. But sit in one, and you’ll notice the difference from what you may have flown recently: touch-capable monitors are large (13.3 inches to be exact) and bright, with great viewing angles; there are multiple input and output ports for HDMI and USB; high-definition audio is pumped through USB or a magnetic headphone jack; and an inductive charging pad can recharge supported devices sans wires. And that’s just what’s noticeable.

Panasonic X Series inflight entertainment
The current X Series, shown here, is already flying in several airlines that include United and Delta. The new version improves upon it beyond a touchscreen LCD and USB port. Les Shu/Digital Trends
Les Shu/Digital Trends

The high-tech Jazz Seat, designed by Panasonic’s Avionics division and in partnership with seat-maker B/E Aerospace, is a major upgrade to the passenger experience. It’s the result of years of research, failures, and collaborations with seat manufacturers and airlines, as well as studying passengers’ changing behaviors. But, besides the monitor, there are also things that aren’t apparent. The IFE system uses near-field communication (NFC) for mobile payments via Apple Pay, for example. Reading lights have been relocated to the back of the seat – as opposed to overhead – to better illuminate what’s in front of you, without disturbing your neighbor. Passengers can even customize the mood lighting for each individual seat. And, fliers have access to high-speed Wi-Fi on planes equipped for Panasonic’s Ku-band satellite system, which can also provide live television within the 99.6 percent of the world that’s covered.

Having a fully connected seatback system like this allows for personalization to take place, Neil James tells us. James is the executive director of sales and marketing for Panasonic Avionics, who gave us a tour of the new seats during CES. “It creates a bit of a luxury feel; you’re getting some of the treatment that you’re getting in the front of the aircraft,” James says. No, seats aren’t going to get any bigger – in fact, they are becoming narrower and smaller, James says – but the ability to have a seat that’s customized to you can elevate the flying experience. The new IFE system is also tailored for consumers’ mobile lifestyle.

But the new seats benefit airlines as well. First shown in secrecy to airline CEOs at the 2014 International Air Transport Association (IATA) Conference and having just made its public debut at CES, the low-power IFE displays are thinner – weighing no more than 3 pounds – making them easier to fit into ever-increasingly thinner seats. The internal electronics are all hidden within the seat legs, which frees up the space below it for carry-on luggage. The seat structure itself is made out of magnesium, carbon-fiber, and composite materials, making it incredibly lightweight. Weight is a major factor for airlines (the heavier the plane, the more fuel it burns), and shaving some where they can is always welcome.

Panasonic Avionics

Panasonic Avionics

But there’s no guarantee we’ll see the exact seat or the entire suite of features in a plane anytime soon. As James tells us, Panasonic Avionics is a business-to-business company — airlines are its customers.

“Our job is not to tell the airline what their strategy is, which product to buy,” James says. “There’s always going to be that airline that says, ‘I’m only going to have these aircraft for another couple years, I can’t justify this kind of investment.

“But what we do is, we have an open dialog with the airline … there’s a lot of these features that generate revenue for you, generate value for you, and make your customers feel special.” James adds. “They’re great entertainment systems, but it’s really a business platform.”

The economy cabin is only going to feel tighter, but having these seats could drastically improve the flying experience. And with customers like Delta, United, and American already having the networking in place, incorporating these seats shouldn’t be difficult. It’s whether the airlines, in these days of cost cutting, want to spend the money at all.

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