By Victoria Bryan
HAMBURG (Reuters) - Panasonic Avionics says it will need to double the rate at which it installs Wi-Fi systems on aircraft to catch up with skyrocketing demand from airlines to keep passengers connected above the clouds.
Airlines are rushing to install Wi-Fi on board, seeing not only an opportunity to meet demands from customers to be always connected, but also to make the most of advertising contracts from companies keen on access to this captive audience.
Panasonic Avionics, part of Panasonic Corp, says it has a 46 percent share of Wi-Fi systems installed since 2009, taking the lead over rivals such as OnAir, Gogo and Global Eagle's Row44.
"We installed 488 systems on aircraft last year, but the rate needs to double to 1,000 a year to catch up with demand," Neil James, executive director sales and marketing, told Reuters at the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg this week.
While Wi-Fi onboard has so far mainly been fitted to long-haul fleets, airlines are now looking at it for shorter flights, especially as people bring their own tablets on board.
James predicted 12,000 narrow body planes would be equipped with the technology in the next 10 years.
He also said Panasonic would continue to look at acquisitions to expand its avionics business. It on Tuesday announced the purchase of software consultancy Tactel, which designs apps and portals.
Suppliers used the Hamburg show to tout hardware to capture the satellite signals that make Wi-Fi on board possible.
Global Eagle unveiled a prototype for a new antenna which does not only spin and lift as it seeks the best satellite reception but also tilts from side to side.
The antenna is aimed specifically at airlines flying close to the equator, such as those in South America and the Middle East, where other antennas can find it hard to pick up signals, chief engineer Simon McLellan said.
Honeywell and Inmarsat meanwhile said they were teaming up with Kymeta to test a new flat-panel design. Kymeta's electromagnetic metamaterial technology means a beam can be steered and locked to any satellite without having any moving parts in the antenna.
Honeywell says having Wi-Fi-connected planes is not only good for passengers but can help airlines save money by making it easier to share weather and maintenance data to ensure planes are taking the best routes and spending as little time on the ground as possible.
(Editing by David Evans)