BORDEAUX, France -- As Denis Bonnet slipped into the right-hand seat of a commercial jet demonstrator in the airliner cockpit design center here at Thales, the French electronics group, his hand reached forward to tap an angled glass screen resembling an oversize iPad.
With a swipe of his finger across its surface, Mr. Bonnet called up a list of European airports and selected Charles de Gaulle, near Paris. A vivid three-dimensional map appeared representing a proposed flight plan, which he manipulated using the familiar pinch and zoom gestures used to operate smartphones and tablet computers. The development of touch-screen technology has enabled a similar revolutionary new approach to cockpit design.
By the end of the decade, says Thales, one of the world's largest makers of aircraft cockpits, as well as at some of its American competitors, pilots could start dispensing with buttons, trackballs and keypads for performing many routine flying tasks in favor of icons that can be dragged and slide-to-scroll menus.
"The idea is to reduce as much as possible the number of buttons and control panels and replace them with virtualization," said Mr. Bonnet, the head of cockpit innovation at Thales.
"We have reached such a high level of complexity today," he said, with the flood of data that streams into cockpit computers from the plane's systems and from the ground. "We want to create an interaction that is more intuitive and that reduces the workload, helping to keep the pilot focused on flying."
Since the transition more than a generation ago from mechanical flight controls to fly-by-wire systems that use computers to control many aspects of flight, avionics engineers have sought to harness the power of electronics to make air travel safer and more efficient. While marketing touch screens for cockpits is a way to get plane makers and airlines to upgrade their systems, the migration toward touch screens is advanced by manufacturers as having the potential to enhance flight safety and improve efficiency.
Touch-screen advocates list several advantages over traditional cockpits, including the elimination of physical space constraints for instrument displays, since all the information the flight crew needs can be searched for and reached from the same set of screens. The displays can also be customized to present only the relevant data and input options that the pilot needs for a specific phase of the flight, be it takeoff, cruise or landing.
"It's a bit like using your iPhone to find a pizza place," said Mr. Bonnet of Thales. "You are very happy, once you have located it on your map, to be able to have the telephone number displayed as well -- the right information, close to where you would expect it to be and not somewhere deep inside the user interface. The idea is to hide the complexity."
Of course, avionics makers face challenges familiar to anyone who has tried to read a tablet outdoors on a sunny day or type a text message while being jostled in the back seat of a speeding taxi. "Sunlight readability is a big one that we are working to solve, because unlike a portable device, you can't pick up a dashboard display to turn it" away from the sun, said Kenneth Snodgrass, director of technical sales at Honeywell International in Phoenix, another avionics maker. "A second is inadvertent touch. If you're flying in bad weather, in turbulence, and you need to be able to change something, you have to be able to make sure you get it right."
Touch screens first made their way into military jets two decades ago, when Thales integrated the technology into the cockpit of the French Rafale fighter. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter being developed by Lockheed Martin will also have instrument panels with touch-screen interfaces. But the concept is still relatively new to commercial jets.
Two years ago, the Federal Aviation Administration in the United States and its counterparts in other countries approved the use of so-called electronic flight bags. Pilots could replace reams of paper operating manuals, checklists and charts with digital versions loaded onto a tablet computer. Several airlines have embraced this paperless system.
"Touch screens have had to earn their way on board," said Mr. Snodgrass of Honeywell. "It can't just be a bunch of pretty colors. It has to be something the pilot can use."
Honeywell won a contract last month from the Brazilian aircraft company Embraer to supply a cockpit system for its newest 100-seat passenger jet, due in 2018. It incorporates some touch-screen functions in its navigation and communications systems. Honeywell plans to start marketing a similar touch-screen system later this year that can be mounted in the cockpit of a private jet.
Rockwell Collins, another American avionics company, has also started to invest in developing touch screens for smaller aircraft. It has sought F.A.A. approval for a system it hopes to offer next year as an optional upgrade for the Beechcraft King Air, a twin-engine turboprop that can seat 13 passengers. The company expects the technology to find its way into larger planes and helicopters.
Some avionics makers are thinking beyond the iPhone screen to other new consumer technologies like Google Glass-like lenses that the pilots can wear. Some voice-activated functions are also being studied.
Mr. Bonnet of Thales said putting touch screens into passenger jets built by Boeing and Airbus, the world's biggest manufacturers, is inevitable. But the planes those companies now have in development, including the Airbus A350-XWB and new versions of the popular Boeing 777, use conventional cockpit interfaces, making such a switch unlikely for at least a decade.
For all the industry's enthusiasm about the possibilities that touch screens present, executives readily acknowledge that the technology faces some practical limitations. "There are certain things in the cockpit that may always have to have knobs that you can touch -- things like landing gear controls, throttles, the autopilot engage or disengage," said Mr. Snodgrass of Honeywell. He and others said that regulators would be unlikely to approve any system that did not give pilots the option of switching to more conventional controls in the event of a touch-screen failure or an emergency like fire or smoke in the cockpit that would render the screens unreadable.
"In the future, there may be other technologies that could eliminate that problem, but that is not so near term," Mr. Snodgrass said.
Some experts said they hoped the industry would proceed with caution. "We can't simply jump to the conclusion that if it works on the iPad it will work in the cockpit," said Najmedin Meshkati, a professor of industrial and systems engineering at the University of Southern California.
"On balance, touch screens will be an enhancement. There is no question about the advantages," he added. "But we should be careful to avoid embracing them with irrational exuberance."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.