Op-Ed: The integration of connectivity and cabin environments

This is an Op-Ed contribution from Werner Lieberherrexecutive vice president and chief operating officer, Interior Systems for Rockwell Collins. 

The world’s love affair with flying peaked in the 1930s when China Clippers delivered the ideal of luxurious travel in a romantic age. Today, “luxurious” and “romantic” aren’t words that immediately come to mind when flying.

But take heart. The global aviation industry is on the cusp of transformation. Passenger psychographics and demographics are shifting. Travelers’ needs and desires are evolving. And airlines are seeking to meet these evolving needs by adopting increasingly sophisticated innovations in products and services. They’re emphasizing connectivity, personalization, and the delivery of almost endless options that bring terrestrial conveniences and experiences to 30,000 feet.

In short, this new paradigm is going to enable passengers to fall in love again with flying.

One recent acquisition within the aviation industry sheds light on where the industry is headed and how companies are proactively working to stay in front of passenger expectations.

Last October, Rockwell Collins, a leader in cockpit, cabin, communication and connectivity solutions, announced that it would acquire B/E Aerospace, the industry-leading designer and manufacturer of aircraft seats and cabin environments.

At first blush, you might ask how one has anything to do with the other. Well, it does. And, believe me, it will.

As CEO of B/E Aerospace, I enthusiastically supported this combination of leaders as a catalyst for the further digital integration of the entire aviation ecosystem — passengers, aircraft, airlines, airline partners and airports — across commercial, business jet and military domains.

In short, the aviation industry is broadening its focus from the connected aircraft to connected users across the aviation ecosystem. It’s this broader focus on connected users that’s going to spark the aviation industry’s transformation and make flying fun again.

If we consider just the aircraft cabin alone, the potential is thrilling. The beating heart of this transformation is smart network technology, processors and sensors that seamlessly integrate connectivity, smart cabin environments and connected users.

Here’s a high-level look at the integrative nature of this transformation.

Smart Seats and Galleys

When booking flights, or sitting in smart cabin seats, a digital interface will enable passengers to order specific meals, drinks, blankets, and amenities for a catered travel experience that reduces crew workload and improves passenger touchpoints. Were you asleep and missed lunch? Notify the galley from your smart seat. Would you like a glass of wine with dinner instead of a soft drink? Change your pre-order by sending a message to your flight attendant.

Smart aircraft seating may look the same as other seating—but appearances can be deceiving. Image: Rockwell Collins

And with high-speed WiFi-enabled cabins, passengers will use their personal laptops, tablets, and smart phones to download hundreds of entertainment options. Airlines may choose to eliminate seatback screens and the associated seatback electronics from their narrow-body aircraft. Removal of embedded IFE may provide more space and promote different storage options for the lower seat pitch environment. This would be a huge weight/cost savings for airlines.

Additionally, consider the opportunities of smart restocking. Galley sensors will automatically determine the inventory required for restocking the aircraft and communicate that information to ground personnel.

Smart Lighting

The integration of wireless connectivity and cabin lighting systems will deliver lighting that soothes, calms and relaxes. Lighting throughout the cabin will adjust with the stage of the flight and be tuned by each airline to its unique brand. Sensors will change lighting automatically depending on weather outside the aircraft and the amount of ambient light coming through larger windows.

Cabin lighting color and intensity? It matters. Image: Rockwell Collins

Smart Overhead Bins

Smart cabin processors and sensors may end the scrambling, shoving and short-tempered shaming that describe the current stress-filled hunt for overhead bin space. At booking, overhead space could be allocated directly above the corresponding seat. Sensors would alert the cabin crew if carry-on bags were placed in any other overhead bin. Digital displays on the overhead bin will confirm reserved spaces and sensors will determine when the bin is full. The check-in process will ensure access to carry-ons and prevent unplanned bag check. Carry-on bags might even be loaded before passengers to save time during the boarding process.

And just imagine how bin reservations might improve deplaning. Embedded sensors will maximize the efficiency of the deplaning process. Based on time and distance to connecting gates, smart sensors may enable passengers with tight connections to deplane first.

Smart Predictive Maintenance

Whether it’s smart overhead bins, seats, galleys, lighting, or more efficient boarding and deplaning, connected sensors will warn of equipment failure before it happens, ensuring that maintenance can fix the problem in a fraction of the current downtime. This means more aircraft pushing back from their gates on time, more passengers making their connections, and more people smiling.

This is only the beginning. The possibilities for integrating connectivity, processors and sensors with leading-edge cabin environments are staggering. The benefits for connected users and the airline customers who serve them are boundless.

Today, the global aviation industry is on the cusp of a seismic transformation. It’s a transformation that passengers on a China Clipper couldn’t have imagined. While the integration of connectivity and cabin environments will enable the same breathtaking anticipation of travel, it will have the benefit of bleeding-edge technology, a modern sense of design, and comfort that has crossed from the virtual world to the physical.

And we’re going to fall in love again with flying.

Header Image: Pan American Airways inaugural flight to Hong Kong from San Francisco (Alameda) arriving October 23, 1936, in the Martin M-130 Philippine Clipper. John T. McCoy 1962 watercolor – SFO Museum Gift of the Pan Am Historical Foundation

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About the author, Werner Lieberherr

Werner Lieberherr is executive vice president and chief operating officer, Interior Systems for Rockwell Collins. The Interior Systems business unit was formed as a result of Rockwell Collins acquiring B/E Aerospace, Inc. in April 2017, and encompasses a broad range of aircraft interior systems.

Previously, Lieberherr served as president & chief executive officer of B/E Aerospace and senior vice president & general manager of the Commercial Aircraft Segment.

Prior to B/E Aerospace, Lieberherr served 16 years in the energy industry with ABB and Alstom Power Inc. in various leadership roles including president, managing director and vice president in Europe, Asia and North America.

Lieberherr holds a Master’s Degree in Business Administration from Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University and a Master’s Degree in Operations Research and Industrial Engineering from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich.


  1. Bob West

    Rather than all the fancy connectedness, how about more space per passenger. I’m tired of feeling like a sardine on every flight. This would make flying a much better experience.


    My recommendation would be a single “comfortable class” seating arrangement for the entire aircraft, which would totally erase any current “coach, business, First” class demarcations of seating or service preferences. Instead, the entire aircraft would provide identical width seats with identical leg room and amenities for one, uniform price. There would be one, and one only exception and that would be to have available some wider than normal seats provided for the occasional morbidly obese passengers as needed. These would have to be arranged for at the time of purchasing the reservation. If you note today in many medical office waiting areas, there are today several wider seats for obese senior patients. Persons needing these extra wide seats would require a letter from their doctor and be expected to pay a slightly higher ticket price.

    The intention here is NOT to make the entire seating into “First Class”, but to make passenger comfort a “guaranteed” amenity for EVERY PASSENGER flying on the aircraft, without sacrificing too much capacity. If you take out First Class, you gain quite a few extra seats right away, which would make up for the changes elsewhere throughout the aircraft. The aim is for EVERY passenger to arrive at destination without cramps, aches, pains, complaints from being squeezed into a narrow vise of a seat and their knees sore from being pressed into pretzels trying to find a comfortable place.

    • Bernard

      One size never fits all and it’s an absurd proposition to even consider dumbing down the options to the most common denominator. Reality-checkpoint!

  3. Linos Dounias

    It’s the pitch, stupid! Humans are getting larger as seats are getting cramoed. No amount of smart anything will make flying fun again.

  4. Teresa

    The problem with all this? The same problem we deal with on every flight. PEOPLE! When the flight attendant asks people who need a wheelchair to remain seated and they are ignored, thereby making every passenger wait for them to get off, block the jetway until the wheelchair arrives. Do you really think they are going to sit and let the passengers with the tight connections get off first??? All these bells and whistles are going to cause higher ticket prices and no one is going to fall in love with that!

  5. People can easily lose weight these days. That signified higher quality lifestyles in general and of course including their passenger experience when flying. Alter the obesity and excess consumption, not the furniture!

  6. Bob Shoring

    Only a sadist could have designed the new slimline seats United is putting on their 757’s. Rock hard in first class and very painful in coach, I’ll go to any lengths to avoid flying domestic flights. Also with more people being shoehorned into overcrowded planes, there are never enough restrooms. Flying has gotten more primitive since the beginning of the new millennium.

  7. Chris Campbell

    Someone needs to address the abhorrent mess air travel has become, and seats, no matter how smart, are not the answer. The passengers and airline companies have reached a breaking point. More revenue for the airlines to pay for more expensive planes, regulations, both necessary and not, and a totally ludicrous boarding process versus the desire to get the most travel bang for the fewest (or no) bucks has caused everyone to individually and collectively lose his/her/their mind(s). Hence overbooking, seats suitable only for those with extremely short legs (under 12 inches, it seems some times), and no bags for those unfortunate enough to have to board later in the process. Do this: make seat spacing large enough so an adult can cross his/her legs. Charge enough to make the flight profitable without having 132 different fares for 132 passengers. Board the plane from the rear forward, and from the windows in (groups traveling together in the same row can board together). That way, no one has to wait for the people further forward to be seated before moving towards the rear. That will speed boarding, and since planes don’t make money on the ground, that should increase usage and revenues. Stop charging for baggage handling; all planes have a huge cargo hold and handlers can stow faster than travelers using overhead bins and under-seat foot space. That saves on both ends. Seats that recline and encroach on the next rearward person’s chin space increase stress and hostility, so another plus for enough room – make the seat recline by pivoting from higher up – that will reduce the recliner’s legroom, not the next passenger to the rear’s personal space. As a longtime air traveler, I fully understand both sides of the issue. Airlines need to be competitive, but they seem to be trying to cut things that should be essential in order to save a buck. Air travelers need to grow up, be respectful of one another, dress appropriately – including keeping their shoes on, and realize that air travel only happens in a confined, shared space, and except for US to Australia duration flights, is in the overall scheme of things a short duration. In other words, suck it up and don’t be a jackass.

    • Bernard

      ‘just three observations. 1st, commercial aviation is – mostly, a privately funded oligopoly [4 major legacy airlines] in the US; as such when suppliers are in the drivers’ seat, they make the rules of engagement. If you’re not flying one of the 4 majors, apart from Jet Blue and/or Virgin America, you’re a bottom-feeder. 2nd, the 4 majors have sought to accomplish two things by their current up to five [that’s right – ‘five’] classes of service. First, they’re trying to eat into the bottom-feeder’s market share [think Spirit, Southwest, Frontier, etc.] by offering ‘basic’ and ‘economy’ fares [with correspondingly each identifiable individual add-on charge: early boarding, an isle or exit row seat, a pillow, a blanket, checked baggage, carry-on baggage, food and water, etc., all being added to the ‘base’ fare. Those desiring either more room [pitch, seat-width and/or leg-room] are charged to step up to ‘economy-plus’ or ‘premium-economy’. Then there’s business and/or first. Naturally, how far out ahead of your flight you book, the season you plan to fly, the particular destination demand and such like all contribute to fare-pricing. The other aspect of what the majors are trying to accomplish by their up to five-tier offerings is to limit the upgrades under their massively over-generated/outstanding frequent flyer mile programs. The availability of upgrades, e.g., to the next class of service, has been significantly limited. If you want to upgrade into business-class you can’t purchase a basic and/or deeply discounted fare, but, will need such as a full ‘economy’ fare basis ticket to get into business class, and a business-class basis to get into first. Though some ‘elite’ status frequent flyers will get priority, e.g., Executive Platinum and Platinum on American, the benefits of American’s first tier elite status: Gold, is hardly any longer of any real value. Again, with the sheer volume of frequent flyer miles outstanding obtaining an award seat can be next to impossible {depending on where, where, what class of service and on which aircraft type you want to fly on/to}. Finally / 3rd, the oligopolization by the 4 majors has real consequences. Chicago’s O’Hare/ORD has fully 80% of their flights controlled by American and/or United – leaving little incentive for competition in either product {seat comfort} or price-points.
      I recently flew from Chicago to London on British Airways, on a 747-400 up in ‘the hump’ – which is all business [Club] class. The product was outstanding – seat comfort, service, the quality of the food and drink, in-flight entertainment, etc. By comparison, I flew back to The States from Paris on an American 777 in first-class. The ‘quality’ of American’s first-class isn’t of the standard{s} of British Airways’ business[Club] class! The American airlines simply can’t compete [in terms of quality] with most any of the European and/or Asian main airlines: British Airways, Swiss, Lufthansa, Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines, Emirates, Qatar, et al. What passes as first-class within the continental United States is hardly up to anything approaching international standards.
      At the end of the day, the American consumer of commercial aviation is getting what they’re willing to pay for and what the market will bear. We’ve nobody but ourselves to blame for being treated as cattle, we and, of course, CONgress.

  8. Ed

    Given that airlines are looking to reduce seat pitch even further, this effort would be wasted! Who gives a rats hairy, smelly posterior if the seat is smart if I can’t even move my legs during the flight? Recent airline behavior makes me wonder how many of the described amenities will come with even more fees! Will I have to program my credit card number into the seat to recline it? Bottom line, if all these changes were made, it wouldn’t offset being packed into the plane like sardines! Wish the airlines would listen to what passengers instead of just looking at the bottom line!

  9. Ron Calvert

    The endless chase for more technology and greater profits has collided head on with more passengers and higher prices Terminals remind me of 60’s era trail ways bus stations, packed with passengers who found bargain basement tickets but expect first class service. Airline management has become an oxymoron. The seemingly simple task of positioning crews has created chaos on flights already overbooked. The solution for this crisis is simple and straightforward. Make the crews responsible for their own arrangements to be where they are suppose to be for work. They can’t all live in Denver when the work is everywhere else. As for the rest of the mess, time for deregulation. Dedicate routes and gates, Increase ticket prices, stop charging for baggage, meals, movies and the like. Get the bus riders back on buses and begin treating airline passengers like customers instead of barnyard animals

  10. Steven Brierley

    If you want me to fall in love with flying again, give me more leg room. I will take a dumb seat with an extra four inches of leg room over a smart seat any day.

  11. Sean

    “Self loading baggage”.
    When that attitude ends it might become a more enjoyable experience.
    Many passengers, nevertheless, bring it upon themselves with their sloppy dress and sloppy behavior.
    I drive now whenever possible.

    • Steve

      Travel has become a greyhound bus for the most part. People buy based only on cost, and then complain about how crappy service is. It is really no different than the department store industry evolving to walmart. Everyone jokes about walmart, but they apparently shop there in masses.

      For the most part flying business class is a reasonable experience even on the domestic carriers. But you have to differentiate international from domestic as they are two different products..

      From a domestic standpoint you have the traditional 4 major carriers. Not much difference although any frequent business travel has his preferences. And flying First/Business retains a reasonably tolerable experience, but at a cost.. In reality the cost of a typical first/Business domestic ticket is comparable (adjusted for inflation) as to flying coach in the 1970s or 1980s prior to deregulation. But economy on the major carriers has deteriorated to an awful experience in the last 10 years, and this is largely by the airlines nickle and dime’ing and encourating passengers to bring everything aboard. And if you want to same more you fly the cheaper low cost carriers where you can be abused even more. Even southwest, which tends to be the better of the low cost carriers is still a pretty awful bus-ride.

      From international travel standpoint, most of the US carriers business class are tolerable, certainly not much luxury or service but going to Europe or Asia is reasonable. Economy is cram packed and intolerable for anyone other than an occasional tourist. There is a prevailing opinion that the foreign carriers are better in this regard, but I find them to be about the same..

      The industry will suffer and continue as it does as a marginal product because people aren’t willing to change their spending habits. Personally I find that I can spend a little bit more and I suffer a lot less. But that is a value each has to address on their own.