Higher calling

26 Feb 2008 by Mark Caswell

The dream – or nightmare – of mobile phones in the air is about to come true. Lucy Fitzgeorge-Parker looks forward to a new era of plane speaking.

Like it or loathe it, mobile phones on planes are about to become a reality. Passengers have been using their phones and PDAs to send text messages and download emails on Qantas domestic flights since April 2007, Air France started a similar trial on one of its A318s in December, and by the summer, Emirates, Turkish Airlines and Ryanair are due to have full commercial voice services in operation. So how does it work, and what are the implications for business travellers?

The technology itself is fairly simple. A tiny picocell attached to the plane acts as a mini-mast, picking up signals from phones and routing them to an Inmarsat satellite. These picocells make mobile-phone use on planes safe by forcing phones to operate at their minimum power level, which is about 1,000th the level they would typically use and too low to interfere with flight-deck communications or ground networks. This is possible because the phones only need to communicate over a few feet to the picocell rather than to phone masts (although they can’t be used below 3,000ft, so will still have to be switched off for take-off and landing).

There will be no question of going out of range, since you’re carrying an aerial with you on the plane, and the Inmarsat satellites cover the whole of the globe with the exception of a few patches over the Poles. This network is already used by most long-haul airliners for in-seat phones and flight-deck communication, and the new Inmarsat 4 system, which came on line at the end of last year, enables full use of phones and PDAs via a system called Swift Broadband.

Inevitably, there has been an adverse reaction to the idea of mobile-phone use in the air – some travellers are reluctant to lose the last refuge from instant communication, while others dread hearing the fatal words: “Hi, I’m on the plane.” (In reader surveys on businesstraveller.com, 59 per cent said they wouldn’t use their Blackberrys in-flight, while 85 per said mobile-phone use on planes should be banned.)

In fact, the chances of sitting next to someone nattering for a couple of hours at a time are fairly remote. Firstly, even systems using Swift Broadband will have a maximum capacity of about 12 calls – if you’re the 13th caller you’ll get a “network busy” signal and will have to wait. (There will be no limit on text messages or GPRS.)

In addition, the cost of calling is likely to limit the length of calls. Pricing will be up to your home service provider, but it is thought that charges will be in line with international roaming rates. David Coiley of AeroMobile, which is fitting out long-haul planes for Emirates and Turkish Airlines, says: “More mundane and casual use only happens when talking at less than 5p a minute – we are targeting US$3-4 a minute.”

Evidence from the use of in-seat phones also suggests that take-up is unlikely to be as heavy as people fear. Emirates has found that the average length of calls from its in-seat phones is 2.1 minutes, and not just because of the cost. Patrick Brannelly, vice-president of passenger communications and visual services at Emirates, notes: “Even when we ran an offer allowing passengers to talk for as long as they wanted for US$20, there were still a huge number of calls that were less than two minutes.”

In addition, airlines will be able to regulate their use of the technology in line with passenger preferences. The cabin crew can switch off part or all of the system at any time, and initial indications are that long-haul carriers are likely to disable the voice component on overnight flights.

Brannelly also anticipates that airlines will play a role in educating passengers about the product. “At the moment, the pilot might come on and say, ‘We’re diverting into Vienna because a passenger’s been taken ill, so we’re going to be about four hours late into Heathrow’. In the future he might add, ‘You may wish to make a phone call, but I’m sure that demand will be heavy, so you might want to send an SMS instead’.”

He also points out that, at least on long-haul flights, passengers will have a limited pool of people to call. “If you’re flying from New York to Dubai, a lot of the time everybody you know is likely to be asleep – a third of the world is asleep at any one time. In any case, in the 14 years we’ve had in-seat phones, we’ve never had a single complaint from a customer who’s been bothered by it. We’ve got TVs on every seat so most people have headsets on anyway or are asleep, and you don’t need to shout because the call quality is pretty good these days.”
Finally, there will be a communications black hole over the US, where the regulators have yet to give even provisional approval for the technology. An evaluation of the systems was put on the backburner last March, partly because at the time US airlines were still coming out of Chapter 11 and onboard frills were low on their list of priorities.

As a result, even carriers which have approval from their home regulators will have to switch off their systems in US airspace, and indeed over any country which fails to sign up for the new system (Connexion by Boeing never got approval for its internet service above countries like Cuba and North Korea).

In any case, despite the media attention given to the phone-averse, initial results from the trials have been overwhelmingly positive. Qantas’s was due to run for three months, but is still going nine months later, and there are no plans to end it. Coiley says: “One of the key points of the Qantas trial was that nothing happened – passengers got on the plane, used their mobile phones and thought it was a great idea.”
Air France also reports a very positive response to the first phase of its trial (a second phase, which will include voice transmission, is due to start at the end of March). Christine Ourmieres, general manager UK and Ireland, says: “When we started, passengers were really delighted to be part of this test, and the feedback was that it was very easy to use and very useful.”

The airlines and providers are also convinced that any objections will be quickly overcome once travellers see how convenient it is. As David Coiley points out: “Countries like the UK have more than 100 per cent penetration of mobile phone devices in the population, so surely it’s logical that sooner or later the one place you can’t use them would be seen as an anachronism. It’s not uncommon now to have 14 or 16-hour flights, and that’s an awful lot of time to be out of contact in this day and age.”

Ourmieres agrees: “Mobiles are now part of the full travel experience, particularly for short-haul journeys, and our customers want to have the choice. These travellers are frequent flyers, and on shorter trips they want to feel they’re not even in the aircraft.”

This opinion is shared by Air France’s system provider, OnAir, which is initially focusing on short and medium-haul aircraft. The company will shortly be introducing the new technology on other planes in the A320 family for Bmi and TAP (which will be starting with one plane apiece) and is already fitting it on 25 of Ryanair’s B737s. Other scheduled OnAir customers include Royal Jordanian, Kingfisher, Shenzhen Airlines, Air Asia and Air Asia X, most of whom are looking at simply introducing the system rather than going through a trial phase.

AeroMobile says it also has three or four more airlines lined up for its long-haul product, all of which are international flag carriers. There are no hints as yet as to which ones, but David Coiley says: “A lot of this market is being driven by the Far East and Middle East. The European airlines are waiting to see how things pan out.”

But although there are plenty of airlines raring to go, there are still obstacles to be overcome. These are partly logistical – the avionics equipment to support the systems is being manufactured – but the biggest hurdles have been and still are regulatory. Preliminary approval from the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) was finally received last June, but each system still has to be authorised for installation on each plane.

There are also issues with the telecoms regulators. Ryanair recently announced that its service might not be in use until as late as June, due to problems with the authorities in the UK and Ireland. A spokesman for OnAir explains: “It was originally hoped that Ryanair’s service would start in March but the telecoms regulatory authorisations are taking longer than anticipated. We are waiting for approval from Ofcom and ComReg [the Irish equivalent]. Both carried out consultations at the end of last year and we are waiting for the results, which we expect in the next few weeks.”

And even when the system is on your plane, you may have to wait to use your phone until your network provider signs up. Both AeroMobile and OnAir have already signed up well over 100 telcos around the world, but it seems to be low on the list of priorities for UK providers and the only one to sign up so far is O2. David Coiley: “We’re effectively creating a new country, and once these guys realise there’s this new country they can operate in they’ll sign up, but until we launch formally there is this reality issue we’ve got to convince them of.”


AeroMobile aeromobile.net
OnAir onair.aero
Emirates emirates.com
Qantas qantas.co.uk
Turkish Airlines thy.com
Ryanair ryanair.com

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