Panasonic Corp., maker of CD players and television sets, is offering a solution to finding commercial jets lost at sea, such as Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
That flight disappeared over the Indian Ocean on March 8, 2014, with more than 230 people on board, and the black box and the bulk of the aircraft have not yet been recovered. If that flight had been equipped with Panasonic's FlightLink tracking system when it crashed, "we would have known where the aircraft's position was," Jeff Rex, director of California-based Panasonic Avionics, said at a press conference Tuesday at Panasonic's U.S. headquarters in Newark, where aviation reporters received an update on Panasonic's flight tracking and in-flight entertainment products.
The Malaysia Airlines flight, along with Air France Flight 447 - which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009 with the black box recovered nearly two years later - brought attention to the need for better flight-tracking technology. However, the systems being brought to market by Panasonic and other companies also address airlines' more routine needs, such as providing automated, and more cost-efficient, aircraft condition monitoring. Panasonic's FlightLink, rolled out last year, uses GPS technology to track an airplane's location, even way out over the ocean. It also can monitor a plane's speed and altitude, do in-flight weather observations and alert pilots of approaching storms.
The product is already on 300 commercial aircraft with commitments for installations on about 150 more, Rex said. In a deal announced in September, AirAsia agreed to have FlightLink installed on 90 Airbus 320 aircraft, and Peninsular Airways, a regional carrier in Alaska, agreed to use FlightLink on 21 planes. Panasonic has provided over a dozen airline partners with FlightLink.
With the rollout of FlightLink, Panasonic is leveraging its market-leading position in back-of-the-seat in-flight entertainment, said Mary Kirby, founder, editor and publisher of Runway Girl Network, a multimedia provider of airline industry news, who attended the conference.
"Panasonic is a real dominant force in in-flight entertainment and connectivity," Kirby said. "They have relationships with 300 airlines," she said.
According to Kirby, part of the reason for Panasonic's success is its systems are built to fit into Boeing's aircraft assembly process. That gives Panasonic an advantage over its main in-flight entertainment rival GoGo, which does not yet have that capability, she said. Airlines must take their aircraft out of service for retrofitting when they install the GoGo system.
London-based Inmarsut Plc also is a player in that evolving multi-billion-dollar market, Kirby said.
It was about a decade ago when Panasonic switched its focus from consumer electronics, where it was losing ground to new competition, to business-to-business electronics. The non-consumer businesses today accounts for more than 80 percent of North American sales, said Jim Reilly, vice president-corporate communications for Panasonic. Reilly said the company does not break out sales by division.
The avionics business is now one of the electronics maker's fastest-growing divisions, Reilly said.