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In-flight innovations: 'Glass bottom jets,' gesture control

American Airlines entertainment system on new 777-300ER adds features that make it more like a smartphone or tablet.
Source: American Airlines
American Airlines entertainment system on new 777-300ER adds features that make it more like a smartphone or tablet.

Airline officials will gather in California soon to examine this year's best efforts to improve what can sometimes be the most irritating part of a business trip.

Among the best ideas: a dual-screen in-flight entertainment system for multitaskers, an app that includes a "glass bottom jet" feature that allows passengers to see what they're flying over, and an airport lounge with outdoor terraces.

At the September event, representatives from more than 70 airlines will gather in Anaheim to meet with and be wooed by vendors selling everything from earplugs and eye masks to the very latest in high-tech in-flight entertainment. The gathering is hosted by the Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX), which uses event to announce winners of the annual Passenger Choice Awards for everything from the preflight experience to cabin ambiance and in-flight meals.

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Two other prizes—the Avion Awards—are also presented: one for best single achievement in passenger experience and for best achievement in technology. A look at the finalists in these categories offers a snapshot of some of the best efforts to improve what can sometimes be the most irritating part of a business trip.

Finalists: Achievement in passenger experience

Among the finalists that passengers may be most familiar with is Virgin America's Red 2.2, an upgrade to the interactive in-flight entertainment (IFE) system that allows travelers to order a drink, meal, snack or even request another seat.

Another nominee is Delta Air Lines' Sky Deck, which the airline has opened so far in Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and at New York's JFK. "This is an outdoor lounge terrace section of the Delta SkyClub that has trendy seating and great views of the planes," said Ramsey Qubein, editor-at-large of FrequentBusinessTraveler.com. "It's unique to have an outdoor lounge like that."

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American Airlines and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines are also finalists in this category for improvements and updates to the graphic user interface systems on their IFE systems, and El Al Israel Airlines has a spot on the list for its online vacation planner.

Finalists: Achievement in technology

Vendors making it onto the finalists list include AKQA's Fly Delta App for iPad, which includes the glass bottom jet experience that lets passengers see what they're flying over and how fast the plane is going, and Lumexis Corp. for its FTTS Second Screen, which allows passengers to multitask while using the in-flight entertainment system.

"Just as many consumers do today when they watch television, passengers can use the second screen to check the location of the aircraft, the weather at their destination or even order food and beverages from the device while they watch movies or TV series on the main screen," said Raymond Kollau of Airlinetrends.com.

The other two finalists in this category are SmartTray International, which has a system that houses and wirelessly powers tablet devices on airplane tray tables, and Thales Avionics for its eye-tracking hand gesture control IFE system.

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The Thales system "is a prototype that shows how developments in consumer electronics such as gesture control technologies featured in Nintendo's Wii and Microsoft Kinect will be making their way into the aircraft cabin; although this may take some time," said Kollau.

Winners will be announced Sept. 9.

—By CNBC Contributor Harriet Baskas. She is the author of seven books, including Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can't or Won't Show You, and the Stuck at the Airport blog. Follow her on Twitter at @hbaskas.

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