New PaxEx partnership could offer powerful proposition to airlines

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Leading inflight power supplier Astronics and tray table innovator SmartTray have inked a new exclusive agreement to work together, combining SmartTray’s personal electronic device (PED) holders with Astronics’ power supply. The initial pact is for Astronics “to exclusively market, sell, and manufacture” SmartTray’s tray tables, which offer clever grooves so that passengers can use their PEDs hands free and without taking up the whole table with a case-type stand.

“Under this exclusive agreement, Astronics will deliver SmartTray’s patented solutions to airlines and seat manufacturers globally, and airline passengers will enjoy the power and convenience they desire,” Astronics CEO Pete Gundermann explains, highlighting the holy grail for many short- and medium-haul passengers and the airlines that carry them: a place to hold and view their tablet or smartphone while also recharging it, and while also being able to eat or work on the tray table.

The Astronics/SmartTray media release skirts around this holy grail, but RGN discussed the matter briefly with a spokesperson for the partnership, who confirmed that the latest developments will be on show next week at the Aircraft Interiors Expo (AIX) in Hamburg.

Answering the “hold and power” question will clear one of the hurdles towards giving embedded seatback inflight entertainment systems a run for their money. With a significant install base and wide-ranging relationships with seat manufacturers who sell its products, Astronics is in an excellent place to understand the niche in which a “hold and power” solution fits.

That niche is growing, particularly on the skyrocketing number of narrowbody aircraft (and some widebodies) now featuring Wi-Fi-based streaming entertainment to PEDs, largely from a server on the plane but in a few cases enabling streaming from the ground.

“With millions of air travelers using their mobile phones and electronic tablet devices on airplanes for work and entertainment, airline operators are in need of simple, practical, and cost effective solutions that make using and stowing PEDs in-flight more convenient and easier,” SmartTray CEO Nick Pajic explains.

A key challenge will be to meet the growing power requirements of recent generations of smartphones and tablets. 2A USB power is now the base requirement for late-model devices, and the vast majority of inflight power supplies deliver just 1A — enough to maintain a level of charge or trickle-recharge, and firmly better than nothing, but not the fast charging that passengers experience elsewhere.

Empower plugs

Astronics’ Empower plug. Credit: John Walton

Providing inflight power isn’t just a #PaxEx amenity benefit. Many passengers today carry power banks, large lithium-ion batteries between 1000-30,000 mAh, in order to ensure their personal electronic devices remain charged on long flights. Lithium-ion batteries, of course, are one of the top concerns of the industry, given their proliferation and the problems of extinguishing them if they catch fire in a thermal runaway incident.

With the provenance and manufacturing of some of these power banks less scrutinized and robust than most of the phones, tablets, e-readers and other devices they recharge, any step to reduce the demand from passengers to carry them on board is a plus in the airline safety column.

The partnership between Astronics and SmartTray is a positive development for two companies that would ordinarily be perceived in separate silos of the passenger experience and cabin interiors world. “SmartTray’s solutions are best-in-class and represent a strong opportunity for Astronics as they are complementary to our leading EmPower aircraft in-seat power systems,” Astronics CEO Gundermann says.

John Walton - SmartTray stand at APEX 2014 IMG_3028

An initial iteration of a SmartTray PED holder. Credit: John Walton

Astronics, which has an estimated 90 percent of the market share for inflight power, is best known for its EmPower brand of AC, USB and DC power supply. SmartTray, meanwhile, was part of the breakout PED table brigade at last year’s Aircraft Interiors Expo (AIX) in Hamburg and Airline Passenger Expo (APEX) in Anaheim, and recently won United as a customerRGN’s team of reporters on the ground in Hamburg next week will bring you the very latest news and analysis on this and other developments in the industry.

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