Move to LED Brightens Opportunities for Lighting Companies

By by Juliet Van Wagenen | December 1, 2014
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With Light Emitting Diode (LED) technology nearly standard on all new airframes, operators and airlines can look forward to the extended lifespan and increased power efficiency of the new era of lighting systems. The typical lifespan of a fluorescent bulb is about 5,000 hours, while the lifespan of an LED bulb is an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 hours. “That’s easily 10 times as much,” says Peter Tessmann, product marketing manager at Emteq. “The interesting thing is, we’re putting LEDs on all these planes that are going to last 10 years, so we don’t have repeat customers for at least 10 years. Or until we launch our next technology.”

Still, the commercial lighting market alone is expected to grow with a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of more than 5 percent between 2014 and 2020, according to a report on the commercial aircraft lighting market released by Research and Markets. LED installations on retrofit aircraft are, in many cases, what is driving this growth. Results from a recent survey conducted by Avionics Magazine indicate that nearly 65 percent of respondents were considering making the switch to LED while only 20 percent were already using the technology.

“It’s really the only thing now,” says Tessmann. “The only fluorescents that are going to be flying in the next couple years are people who haven’t upgraded their aircraft yet, but everything else is LEDs.”

A few operators who have a significant amount of electroluminescent-fitted aircraft are still resistant to LED as it may complicate the logistics of their maintenance operations. “They already have spare parts in their system for the legacy filament-based lights; retrofitting their existing fleet to LED is expensive, so they sometimes prefer that the [Original Equipment Manufacturer] OEM continue to deliver new models of the aircraft with traditional incandescent lighting,” says James Kramer the executive vice president of Astronics.

Companies such as Astronics report they will continue to carry filament-based lighting for the tiny segment of customers who don’t wish to make the switch, but outside of this small, resistant customer base the transition is nearly complete.

“Light Emitting Diodes is where it’s at,” says Jennifer Nelson, vice president of marketing and product management, lighting at Honeywell Aerospace. “As far as market trends go we saw LED peak up in 2011, and the peak isn’t over, certainly, as aircraft transition over.”

Our survey also reported reliability as the overwhelmingly most important feature when choosing a lighting product, with 75 percent of respondents indicating it as the largest concern when upgrading. Companies are looking to provide customers with not only this reliability, but also the safety and efficiency that they also crave by continuing to improve on LED. Many are looking to create even more compact, efficient and easy to install plug-and-play systems.

“Our customers are looking across the value chain and they’re saying they want it to be easy for installers to put systems in, they want to maintain it easily and, if it’s a retrofit, they want to be able to go in and do it as a drop-in replacement,” says Nelson.

The move to have all lighting installations achieve Parts Manufacturer Approval (PMA) certification via the FAA is also a way for companies to deliver easier solutions to customers. PMA certification allows qualified sources that are not the original type certificate holder to design and manufacture replacement parts for commercial aircraft, so operators can replace parts without having to go through the OEM.

“A newer trend we are seeing with installers is the need for PMA. It traditionally hasn’t been a requirement, but now it is becoming one,” says Tessmann. As new products come onto the market, many companies look to have them completely PMA certified, giving operators more options when it comes to eventually replacing their systems.


Nearly 50 percent of respondents to our survey reported the need for exterior lighting in their aircraft. While aircraft interior cabin LED lighting peeked into the market a few years ago, exterior LED lighting is still making its debut.

“For the interiors, the drive for LED began a little bit earlier, much like in your home, and it’s leveling off at the 2016 or 2017 time horizon, whereas with exterior you’re just seeing that peak beginning,” says Nelson, who notes that, while passenger demand drove the interior LED entry into the cabin as people looked to see the inside of an aircraft reflect the lighting changes they were making in their own homes, exterior LED is driven by operators and airlines seeking the advantages of lighter, lower-maintenance technologies everywhere in their aircraft.

As with interior lighting, companies are looking to offer easy to install, plug-and-play solutions for anti-collision, taxi, position and other exterior lights. “Early next year we’re coming out with direct bulb replacement LED products for landing and taxi lights,” says Tessmann regarding Emteq’s plans for retrofit lighting solutions. “They will fit the exact footprint of the existing bulbs and will work uniformly across all Airbus and Boeing aircraft.”

As exterior lighting begins to go through the LED transition, plenty of opportunities will continue to pop up in the market. “It’s really exciting and it’s a market that’s going to be around for a while,” says Tessmann.

Cockpit Lighting

Forty percent of respondents to the Avionics Magazine aircraft lighting survey noted a need for lighting in the cockpit and on the flight deck, but new technologies in this area aren’t making a big splash in the market. “As always, the issue is certification. The primary focus has been in the passenger area and external landing and position lights — not so much in the cockpit,” says Bruce Maxwell, president of Luma Technologies.

LED lighting in the cockpit is used mainly for switches and dimmers and it can face a lengthy and difficult process trying to achieve certification. But the cockpit lighting market is looking up as the NextGen mandate deadline gets closer and many operators must update flight deck avionics in order to remain compliant with regulation airspace. “We’re seeing a lot of activity related to the ADS-B mandate, which will translate to some meaningful switch light and annunciator opportunities for everybody,” Maxwell says.

Mood Lighting

LED is offering new opportunities for mood lighting in the cabin as well, which many see as the next big opportunity to keep driving market interest. In this regard, Boeing Sky Interior, delivered by B/E Aerospace (which Emteq recently acquired) has been revolutionizing commercial interior cabin lighting on the 787 since 2010. The LED-lit solution looks to enhance passenger experience by mimicking sleeping and waking hours on long flights, among other flight-enriching improvements.

According to Tessmann, the company is looking to develop this kind of aesthetic approach to lighting even further, as “one of the biggest drivers of people choosing airlines after costs, which is the main driver, is the passenger experience effect: How safe do I feel? How new does it look? How is my experience?” says Tessmann, indicating the questions that many passengers subconsciously ask themselves while entering an aircraft. Our readers seem to agree with him, as nearly 40 percent of respondents to our survey noted lighting was a main driver when choosing an upgrade solution. The theory for developers is that a customer who feels safe in clean, bright-but-not-too-bright lighting is more willing to fly that airline in the future than a customer who walks onto a dim and barely lit aircraft.

The effect extends into more experimental and psychological lighting, dimming and coloring as it impacts “sleep, productivity, eating habits and safety and perception,” according to Tessmann, who’s company is conducting research in these areas. “We see that with the right lighting you can affect mood,” he says. “We’re doing a lot of research on how a blue cabin, for instance, might affect people. If a blue light goes on, it releases endorphins, increases your arousal and makes you more open to experiences. It’s a chemical balance that changes in your brain. There is a science behind this kind of lighting.”

This, of course, does not mean blinding passengers with blue will produce a calm customer, but a subtle color change has the potential to offer a more pleasant in-flight experience.

“It’s the same with short wavelength colors such as violet or green, it calms you down. So a lot of people use it when you’re resting or when you’re trying to be productive. It sounds kind of counterintuitive because you’re either sleeping or being active, but it just keeps you more balanced and at an equilibrium with the chemicals in your brain,” Tessmann says, warning that this kind of lighting isn’t a guarantee on improved psychology. “It’s not coffee or an energy drink, you’re not going to feel huge spikes, but when you’re going transatlantic and you’re on a plane for 10 hours, the lighting can really affect you,” he says.

What Emteq has done the most research in, however, is how lighting and dimming can sync up with circadian rhythm, to leave a passenger feeling refreshed even when flying through a complex series of time zones.

“The internal clock is affected by time zone change and flight time but can be managed, to a degree, with lighting. You can control the light intensity, color and fade times to match the timeframe that you’re going in and feel refreshed even though you essentially just woke up in the same time period,” says Tessmann.

LED mood lighting also has branding implications tied to it as companies begin instituting colors to match logos aboard their aircraft. One such company is Icelandair, whom Emteq worked with to design and implement a lighting sequence that mimics Iceland’s famous Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis. “If you’re coming into Iceland, they turn on the Aurora Borealis to signify you’re in the country,” says Tessmann. “They’re using that light as a branding element.”

But it’s not just Emteq and B/E moving in this direction, Sean O’Kell, director of Innovation at STG Aerospace sees the industry continuing to move in a way that explores holistic light and “the ways in which the cabin can be made to feel more open and spacious for the passenger,” he says. “You can see planes like the 777X projecting clouds onto the ceiling to make the cabin feel almost like open air… This new focus will benefit both airline and passenger. We never lose sight of the small details that can have such a dramatic impact on the final cabin lighting solution.”

Life After LED

While new technologies are necessary to continue driving the market, many companies aren’t concerned with the switch to LED eventually lessening profit margins; they’re excited, in fact, about how it may allow them to get closer to the perfect light offering for each customer.

“The demand won’t change, it’s just migrating from incandescent to LED and other modern-day solutions. I guess if you were in the business of selling incandescent or fluorescent lamps in the spares market you might be worried, but otherwise all is good,” Maxwell says, likening the competition in the interior, exterior lighting market to that of the avionics upgrade market, where Garmin’s G1000 avionics suite on the King Air inspired competition to introduce new, similar systems to stay on the market. “The interior and exterior guys are doing the same thing,” he says. “You need to get on board or watch it slip away.”

The forecasted market expansion from $1.4 billion to more than $2 billion between 2014 and 2020, according to Research and Markets, isn’t hard to account for with plenty of growth opportunity still in the LED market as research expands, technology develops, and mandates approach. But this isn’t stopping companies such as Honeywell and Emteq from looking to develop the next lighting product to take the industry by storm.

“Currently, in our R&D department, we’re working on the next thing that’s going to replace LEDs. It’s a new technology we’re really excited about and takes advantage of the short-fallings of LEDs. Color consistency is a lot better, they’re more efficient, they’re smaller, and you can do a lot more with the package size,” says Tessmann.

As of yet, no one is giving specifics, but despite some hesitation surrounding longer-lasting bulbs, the lighting market seems more wired than ever.

“We certainly think there will be something beyond LED and our R&D program is looking into it,” says Nelson. “But we think LED is still maturing very rapidly and that it’s just on that cusp of the light cycle growth curve. We would like to continue to develop the LED to provide better quality of light and better options for our customers within that LED space. That’s what we’re focused on now.”

Juliet Van Wagenenis the junior editor for Avionics Magazine.

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