The introduction of in-flight mobile phone services by Emirates Airline has fuelled industry debate about its popularity among passengers. Gemma Greenwood investigates the potential impact on travellers.
Dubai is all about firsts, so when Emirates Airline recently became the first carrier in the world to introduce in-flight mobile phone services, it came as no surprise.
However, a recent survey of travel agents attending the Pacific Asia Travel Association's (PATA) ‘What's new in Asia Pacific 2008' seminar staged in Dubai revealed that 68% of participants believed the service shouldn't be allowed.
The question is whether or not airlines should follow Emirates' lead? The survey's results are in stark contrast to YouGovSiraj research conducted in November 2007.
According to this MENA-wide traveller survey, 47% of the region's business travellers and 43% of leisure travellers would like complete freedom to use their mobile phones on board flights, with less than 20% against airlines introducing the service.
This might suggest that travel agents are out of touch with passenger demands, but apparently not, according to Jane Wilson, director of travel and tourism for YouGovSiraj.
"The sample covered almost 4000 people, so it is very reliable," she says. "It is a cultural thing; the survey covered 20 countries in the MENA region, so the majority of respondents were Arab nationals.
Westerners are far more against it. If you look around the local markets and notice the number of mobiles that people have and the constant use of them then it isn't such a surprise."
A YouGov UK poll supports Wilson's opinion, showing that 56% of British travellers were against in-flight mobile phone use compared to just 16% that wanted the service to be introduced.
There are currently two service providers available to offer the technology for in-flight mobile use - OnAir and AeroMobile. Emirates Airline has wasted little time taking advantage by installing the AeroMobile systems on an Airbus A340-300 and Boeing 777-300 aircraft.
The Dubai-based airline has publicly supported the new service, with management planning to invest US$27 million to introduce the AeroMobile system to its fleet.
"Mobile phones have become such a part of people's lives today that there is growing expectation that they will be able to stay in touch [onboard] in a way they are comfortable with," says Patrick Brannelly, vice president of passenger communications and visual services for Emirates Airline.
"People prefer to use their own phones rather than a set-back system and AeroMobile also allows passengers to receive calls and texts, which is an important part of staying in touch and being contactable, even when you fly."
The AeroMobile system automatically switches on after take-off. Once the aircraft reaches 20,000ft, an in-flight briefing video will be shown on Emirates' flights. Cabin crew will then announce that passengers' mobile phones can be switched on.
"Each passenger's phone will then receive a free text message from the AeroMobile system advising them to switch their phones to silent mode," Brannelly says.
The system will be switched off as the aircraft begins its descent, with a text advising passengers to switch off at 23,000 ft before the system is automatically switched off at 20,000 ft."
Passengers may be glad to hear that a controlled timeframe for mobile phone usage and silent mode options are in place. But the concern is that passengers not using the service will complain about other fliers constantly talking throughout the flight.
"People will complain and they will vote with their feet; you're never going to make everybody happy all of the time, but I'm sure it will find its natural balance," YouGovSiraj's Wilson says. "Maybe it won't be as intrusive as people expect."
Making in-flight calls using credit-card swipe phones has been available for many years without impacting on passengers' comfort levels, Brannelly argues.
On Emirates flights, between 7000 and 8000 calls are made each month without any problems at all, clearly showing that many Emirates passengers wish to stay in touch by phone when they fly," he says.
The airline's cabin crew will be in full control of the system at all times and will ensure the comfort of all passengers at all times."
Emirates argues that these measures will ensure passengers are not disturbed. The airline's executives also say the restrictions limit mobile phone usage to five or six passengers at any one time."The novelty of mobiles has faded and the days of the proud new mobile owners yelling down their brick-sized phones have disappeared," Brannelly says. "The majority of people know how to behave.
According to Wilson, the service will be "good if it is well managed" before adding passengers will complain if it's "free use and not managed". Nevertheless, she's still not convinced it will be an overwhelming success.
"They [passengers] like the idea of having the freedom to use their own phones, but maybe they will not be so keen on everyone else doing it - though the cost will help to limit this." she says.
Brannelly insists Emirates Airline is introducing the new service as an "additional amenity for passengers" and not a revenue generator. "The passenger's own mobile phone provider - not the airline - will set the price paid for using the AeroMobile system.
Any revenue for airlines will come from the telecoms provider, not directly from the passenger," he says.
Dubai-based mobile provider du has signed agreements with both in-flight mobile service providers AeroMobile and OnAir to ensure its customers can make calls on any airline offering the onboard calls.
"With these agreements in place, any du customer, as soon as he's on the plane, is able to roam as though he were on the ground in Australia, Saudi Arabia or the UK for example," says Andrew Grenville, du's executive vice president for international and wholesale.
It just looks to him like a normal roaming agreement, it's just that you're 30,000ft up in the air."
The primary reason for du offering the service is customer demand, especially from business clients claiming they would benefit from using their mobiles during flights.
For that reason we went through all the appropriate work, effort and cost of putting these agreements in place and then the airlines will be the ones dictating whether travellers can or can't use the service," Grenville says.
Business travellers won't be the only ones using the service. In-flight mobile phone calls is also expected to prove popular among holiday travellers, according to Grenville.
"When you fly, quite often there are delays and even if you don't want to make a voice call it's really convenient to be able to sit down in your seat and text ahead to your husband, wife, partner or whoever is meeting you at the airport and say you'll be hitting the ground in 40 minutes," he says.
"There will be different users. There will be business people who have the need to make some calls - those people would be making a lot of roaming calls whether they were on the ground or in the air - and then there will be more casual users who will just want to call and say they will be landing in an hour, or send a text."
Where passengers use the service is another key issue for Grenville, who says that du will encourage its customers to be as courteous in the air as they should be on land. He added that some airlines plan to designate specific areas on planes for people wanting to make calls.
"Perhaps they don't want widespread use in the aircraft cabins because it's important, especially on dark hour flights where people are trying to get some sleep, that they don't have somebody next to them talking on their mobile phone for three hours," he says.
"But sitting down the front of the plane making some calls there, OK, it helps them and doesn't inconvenience anyone else.
Grenville noted that the airlines embracing the service - Royal Jordanian, Air Asia and King Fisher Airlines - are "innovative" carriers that want to offer a "cutting edge" service to their customers.
Oman Air and Jazeera Airways will be following Royal Jordanian's example, having announced plans to introduce technology enabling in-flight mobile phone usage.
"It looks like some players in the region are starting to introduce the technology to their fleets and I suppose it's like many things; they will upgrade their fleets, it will roll out more over the coming months and other airlines will follow suit," he says.
YouGovSiraj's Wilson agrees but expects passengers to voice their concerns if in-flight mobile phone usage fails to take off. "Restrictions will be put in place and maybe it will be banned or it will find its natural place," she says.
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