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Boeing is developing technology that could make the flight attendant call button obsolete — but don’t expect to see it on an airline soon.
Years after bluetooth technology and mobile apps began making life more efficient for most consumers, Boeing is working on programs that could bring similar user-friendly features to planes. The manufacturer is betting passengers may soon be able to operate their overhead lights, call their flight attendants and order food and drink all through their mobile phones or tablets. Boeing is even testing a feature that would allow passengers to use their phones to check whether the bathroom is free.
All this stuff sounds simple enough, and if Boeing made buses, it probably could have rolled out the technology long ago. But nothing is ever easy on planes, and whatever goes on an aircraft requires considerable testing before it can be approved.
“There is a lot of complexity involved with the smart cabin initiative,” a Boeing spokesman said in an email. The company went public with its plans for a cabin-of-the-future earlier this month.
The system, which Boeing calls the vCabin, would not require Wi-Fi, according to the manufacturer. Instead, airlines would install small chips around the cabin to control amenities. Boeing claims the chips are secure, and would not be connected to cockpit systems or the in-flight entertainment platform. Boeing says it cybersecurity team is involved in designing the new smart cabin.
Boeing also says the new technology will benefit airlines. It says flight attendants can use it to track where elite frequent flyers frequent flier preferences, allowing them to provide personalized service. (Many airlines do this already, using existing technology.) Boeing also says maintenance departments can rely on the smart cabin to tell them when items, such overhead light bulbs, are not working. That could ensure they’re fixed sooner.
So far, Boeing has been showing off the new technology to various airlines, but no airline has committed to adding it.
“Our timing to market will be driven by demand,” the Boeing spokesman said.