OLED Lighting: Competitive Advantage for Commercial Airlines

By Dr. Michael Boroson – Chief Technical Officer (CTO), OLEDWorks

As passengers resume traveling for work and play, commercial airlines face a great challenge: they must encourage passengers to return while remaining cost-competitive and demonstrating gains in sustainability.

With last year’s non-essential travel restrictions, the aerospace industry faced unprecedented doubt and uncertainty. While the defense sector remained steady throughout the pandemic, commercial travel dropped by 61% in 2020. With vaccination roll-out and pent-up demand accelerating its return, commercial travel expects to rebound by +56% in 2021. To return to profitability, airlines will need to differentiate on passenger comfort and cost.

Aerospace Lighting Today

The 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act, an act that ordered federal agencies to develop renewable energy production and improve vehicle fuel economy, began the shift to LED lighting use for airline cabin interiors, runways, taxiways, and obstruction lighting. Virgin Airlines led the way as an important part of their branding by switching from overly bright fluorescent lighting to warm mood lighting. Delta soon followed, introducing ambient lighting in 2013 with the delivery of its first Boeing 737-900. Most of its fleet now features blue and white lighting, as do United, Southwest, and JetBlue.

The shift from fluorescent to LED offered airlines the ability to offer different ambient effects, such as a sunrise or sunset experience to ease passengers in and out of sleep. More importantly, LED lighting provided key financial benefits:

  • Longer lifecycle
  • Lower weight
  • Reduced power consumption

As much as the move to LEDs, both in new aircraft design and retrofitting, provided a tangible benefit to commercial airlines a decade ago, today’s OLED lighting may help these airlines navigate a new era.

OLED Lighting for Commercial Aerospace

2021 is a year of supply chain transformation focused on restructuring and cost reduction to position airlines for long-term profitable growth. Every component is evaluated for SWaP: size, weight, and performance. In commercial airlines, every gram of weight matters in improving fuel efficiency, and every millimeter of space saved adds to passenger comfort.

In a SWaP analysis, OLED lighting wins out over LED in size, weight, and performance.

Size: Today’s LEDs require a heat sink, diffuser, and casing, which OLED lighting does not. Without the need for components that diffuse the light and minimize glare, OLED panels less than 2mm thick can be direct mounted, saving overhead space and allowing for greater cabin design freedom.

Weight: Every gram affects fuel consumption and total lifetime costs. In addition to a need for more components, LEDs require a large number of circuit boards to serialize ambient overhead lighting. With fewer components, OLEDs have the potential to drive down the weight by up to 50% compared to comparable LEDs. Reducing weight not only cuts fuel costs but helps airlines work toward their reduced emissions targets.

Performance: OLED panels provide 90% uniformity, a significant advantage over LEDs which are typically 50% or lower. This uniformity reduces passenger fatigue and eyestrain, as their eyes do not have to work to modulate the light. OLEDs also reduce localized heat, improving cabin comfort.

With a similar lifecycle to LED, OLEDs easily meet today’s standards for reliability and predictable maintenance. A surface-mounted OLED overhead lighting panel, for example, offers a 100,000-hour lifetime at 100 lumens. With similar DC power requirements, OLEDs are suitable for cabin retrofitting.

Some OLED lighting technology already meets the rigorous reliability demands for automotive certification. For example, OLEDWorks panels are ISO9001 certified and have passed extensive testing per AEC-Q-102 standards. Some of these tests include:

  • Temperatures from -40°C to 105°C
  • Thermal shock from -40°C to 85°C
  • High humidity conditions of 85°C/85%RH, 95°C/95%RH and 105°C/95%RH
  • Mechanical shock and vibration

There are clear advantages in payload and performance. But how can OLED lighting enhance the passenger experience?

Healthier Light, Happier Passengers

Anxiety around travel is at a new high. Disrupted sleep schedules and enclosed spaces exacerbate those feelings. Airlines looking to bring back travelers are focused on cost-competitive ways to enhance the flight experience, particularly in first and business class. OLED’s natural light can improve comfort and function. Its advantages in light quality in a conformable format open new opportunities to brand and enhance the passenger experience.

Photobiologic advantage: OLED lighting has been rated free of all UV and blue light risk to eyes and skin, so they can be placed close to passengers safely and comfortably. As OLED lighting manufacturers expand in color-tunable white OLEDs and polychromatic light, OLED can provide a full spectrum experience without glare, harsh contrast, and sleep-disruptive blue wavelength light.

Branded experience: The entry experience and first-class cabin set the tone for the flight. Easily customizable OLEDs allow for branded bulkhead panels that display crisp logos or text without the design challenges of LEDs. OLED lighting can also combine branding with functionality through communication in signage such as restrooms or exit signs.

Re-imagined PSUs: Segmented OLEDs, already certified to automotive standards, offer real promise for a re-imagined passenger service unit. Bendable OLEDs can shape to the architecture of the overhead unit, integrating display-like lighting into aesthetic panels for a new level of design freedom.

Beyond Passenger Lighting

The benefits of OLED lighting extend well beyond the cabin. Bendable, ultra-thin, and reliable OLED lighting panels provide payload and space savings in cargo areas, galleys, and lavatories—anywhere that real estate is at a premium.

From architecture to automotive to aerospace, the applications for OLED light are virtually limitless. Track the advances and participate in the conversation by subscribing to OLEDLight.org.

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