Why Airbus wants to track your in-flight movements

From what you like to eat to how long you spend in the bathroom, Airbus will be watching

Airbus is embracing the Internet of Things with the introduction of a new cabin experience to track passengers' in-flight movements.

From whether your seat is upright to what you like to drink with dinner to how long you spend in the bathroom, Airbus’ Airspace Connected Experience has been billed as a means to improve passenger journeys and assist flight crew with cabin monitoring.

Trials of the technology have commenced on-board an A350-900 aircraft at Airbus's Hamburg facility. The French aircraft manufacturer previously signed deals with three of its service partners to help turn the idea into a reality and now plans to roll out the technology across its A320 fleet by 2021, and on its bigger A350 series by 2023.

What are airlines watching?

The Airbus Connected Experience could allow airlines to track multiple elements of a flight including information on overhead bin usage, passenger seats, lavatory use and the workings of the galley.

Using real-time data monitoring, airlines will be able to identify when passengers have their seat belts fastened and how far chairs are reclined throughout flights. They might also be able to monitor passenger weight and height, something that could be helpful when it comes to assigning seats.

Lavatory sensors will monitor toilet paper and soap levels, alerting staff when restocks are needed. Cameras positioned outside bathrooms could help identify how long passengers spend using the bathrooms and at what points of the flight bathrooms are busiest. Airbus has said these cameras could blur passenger faces to address any privacy concerns.

Overhead sensors in bins will be used to identify which sections are at capacity and where there is remaining space for passenger bags and cabin supplies.

Will someone be watching me?

While it's highly unlikely someone will be tuned to a camera watching you adjust your neck pillow or steady your drink as you fly through a patch of turbulence, there is a Big Brother element to this new technology.

Created from a series of sensors located throughout the plane, during a flight, information will be constantly collected and sent to the aircraft Wi-Fi then routed to a large screen at the back of the plane or to digital devices used by cabin crew.

As well as allowing real-time data exchange for crew, the collated information could also be uploaded to Airbus’ Skywise cloud, an open data platform that will allow airlines access to massive amounts of passenger and aircraft data.

Tiny seat back cameras made headlines earlier this year after a passenger spotted them on a Singapore Airlines flight could also be utilised as part of the system. At the time, Singapore Airlines and many of the world's other airlines confirmed that cameras existed on their aircraft but said they were not active and that they had no plans to use them in the future.

Why do airlines want this information?

Airbus' on-board connected experience is being touted as a way for airlines to better understand their passenger’s needs in order to be able to improve service with an overall aim of increasing revenue. The real-time data will also allow airlines to monitor customers’ health on-board, to data mine frequent flyer habits, and to keep tabs on any 'suspicious' or flagged travellers.

According to Airbus, if airlines know what passengers ate on their last flight or what they watched mid-flight and purchased from duty free, they will be able to boost revenue by offering services that passengers actually want.

Passenger opinion on the matter is decidedly split with some travellers lamenting a lack of privacy.

Other travellers thought the technology made sense and pointed out the positives that could come from real-time data monitoring.

Many of the technology advancements have been designed to make flights easier for cabin crew to manage. Linking real-time interconnected core cabin components including galley, meal service, seats, luggage bins and other elements, the platform allows data exchange throughout the cabin for the crew.

Will this make flying better? 

It's difficult to say. The idea behind the technology, other than improving airline revenue, is that it improves your in-flight experience.

By tracking your habits as a passenger, airlines should be able to offer travellers a personalised flight. Connected seats will be able to remember your favourite seat position for flying and automatically adjust to fit you when you sit down. Taller passengers might automatically be given seats with more legroom and passengers that make frequent toilet visits could be seated closer to the lavatories.

Customers may also be able to use this new technology to pre-book services ahead of flights. If you have extra or bulky cabin baggage, connected bin technology could allow passengers to reserve space around their seat for their bags. Travellers might also be able to pre-order food and beverages of their choice.

“You could order your meal at home or at the airport and it will be delivered on board and you will get what you want. At the moment, if you’re sitting in the last 10 rows, you don’t get what you want,” said Ingo Wuggetzer, Airbus’ vice-president of marketing.

This could be good news for the environment as it would help to cut-down on food waste from flights. In 2016, airline passengers generated 5.2 million tonnes of catering waste, according to date from the International Air Transport Association. In July, Emirates announced plans to allow customers flying on its premium class cabins the option to pre-book meals.

In-flight entertainment

New technology could mean that your favourite movies, podcasts and television shows are always available whenever you fly.

Using data that Airbus harnesses will allow airlines to customise in-flight entertainment (IFE) systems to offer travellers content they are interested in from the latest blockbuster staring your favourite actor to sports matches that the team you support are playing in.

IFE can also be programmed to offer flyer's recommendations for on-arrival activities in your destination such as concerts happening while you’re in town or good places to eat near the business conference you’re attending.