The introduction of in-flight mobile phone services by Emirates Airline has fuelled industry debate about the possible client response. Arabian Travel Newsinvestigates the potential impact of the service on your clients.
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.
People prefer to use their own phones rather than a set-back system.
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 should not be allowed.
So, should they or shouldn't they?
The results of this agent survey offer a stark contrast to YouGovSiraj research conducted in November 2007.
The results of this MENA-wide traveller survey showed that 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 agents are out of touch with the demands of their clients, but apparently not, according to Jane Wilson, the director of travel and tourism for YouGovSiraj.
"The sample covered almost 4000 people, so it is very reliable. 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," she explained.
"I think 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% who wanted the service to be introduced.
There are currently two service providers able to offer the technology for in-flight mobile use - OnAir and AeroMobile - and Emirates Airline has already equipped an Emirates Airbus A340-300 aircraft and a Boeing 777-300 aircraft with the Aeromobile system.
The Dubai-based airline is fully behind the new service and is planning to invest US $27 million to fit out its fleet with the Aeromobile system.
"Mobile phones have become such a part of people's lives today that there is a growing expectation from people that they will be able to stay in touch [onboard] in a way they are comfortable with," said Patrick Brannelly, vice president, 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 and when the aircraft reaches 20,000ft, an in-flight briefing video will play and Emirates cabin crew will 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," explained Brannelly.
"The system will be switched off as the aircraft begins its descent, with a text advising passengers to switch of at 23,000ft before the system is automatically switched off at 20,000ft."
Despite this carefully controlled timeframe for mobile phone usage and Brannelly's insistence that passengers having their phones on silent mode will prevent anybody being disturbed, the obvious worry is that those passengers not using the service will complain about the constant babble of voices while they are trying to relax.
"I think people will complain and people 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. Maybe it won't be as intrusive as people expect" said YouGovSiraj's Wilson.
The opportunity to make in-flight calls using credit-card swipe phones has been in place for many years "without impacting on passengers' comfort levels", Brannelly argued.
"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 said.
"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," he added.
Emirates has also argued that these measures will ensure passengers are not disturbed and the service also has its own limitations with only five or six passengers able to use it at 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. The majority of people know how to behave," said Brannelly.Wilson said the service would be "good if it is well managed" but that people would be more against the service if it was "free use and not managed".
However, she's still not convinced that it will be an overwhelming success.
The novelty of mobiles has faded and the days of the proud new mobile owners yelling down their brick-sized phones have disappeared.
"I think they 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 said.
According to Brannelly, Emirates Airline will not be using the service as a revenue generator, rather as an "additional amenity for passengers".
"The passenger's own mobile phone provider - not the airline - will set the price paid for using theAeromobile system. Any revenue for airlines will come from the telecoms provider, not directly from the passenger," he explained.
The Dubai-based mobile provider du has signed agreements with both in-flight mobile service providers Aeromobile and OnAir to ensure that its customers will be able to make use of the in-flight service on any airline that is offering it.
"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," said Andrew Grenville, executive vice president international and wholesale for du.
"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 who claim 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," explained Grenville.
It won't just be business travellers using the service though; the convenience of being able to make a call on board an aircraft will appeal to many people, 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, whoever is meeting you at the airport and say you'll be hitting the ground in 40 minutes," he said.
"I think 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 or 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 will use the service is another key issue for Grenville who said that du always tried to encourage its users to be courteous on land and the same courtesy should be extended in the air, adding that some airlines were saying they would have certain areas of the plane where people could 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 added.
"But sitting down the front of the plane making some calls there, ok, it helps them and it doesn't inconvenience anyone else."
So how can travel agents take advantage of this new service? The answer for Wilson is to show that they understand their clients' needs.
"Obviously they could use it as a selling tool for Emirates when the customer puts his three mobile phones down on the desk, or even as a selling tool for other airlines if they can see that their client would frown at the service. It's about understanding the customer and selling them what they need," she said.
Grenville noted that the airlines embracing the service - Royal Jordanian, Air Asia and King Fisher Airlines - were the more "innovative" carriers that wanted to offer a "cutting edge" service to their customers.
So, the future of in-flight mobile use is hard to predict, with Wilson listing two carriers already following suit - Oman Air and Jazeera Airways.
Meanwhile, du is waiting to see how things "pan out".
"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 and more over the coming months and other airlines will follow suit," said Grenville.
Wilson agreed but said: "Then will come the backlash and restrictions will be put in place and maybe it will be banned or it will find its natural place."
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