Other than babies in business class, nothing causes such division among business travellers as the issue of mobile phone use on board planes. Some like the idea, most hate it, but the ability to use mobiles is only part of a raft of capabilities summed up in one word – connectivity. It’s been a long time coming, but the next year or so will see more aircraft fitted with equipment that allows both internet browsing and phone use.
In most cases, connectivity comes at a charge to the traveller, although there are several different pricing models and all the airlines are keen to emphasise that this is not a revenue proposition but a product enhancement. In other words, they aren’t making much money out of it.
Why are they doing it then? These innovations have come not only because there is a demand for connectivity but also as a way for full-service airlines to differentiate themselves from their low-cost rivals. Such systems require millions of dollars in investment for each aircraft so are out of reach of the budget airlines, or simply not part of their business model.
What about the hardware? On full-service airlines, the in-flight entertainment (IFE) systems vary, but the chances are that most new ones will have the same underlying hardware – either by Thales or Panasonic Avionics Corporation. The advent of systems that you can pause (audio-video on-demand, or AVOD) is now being superseded by connectivity – not just the ability to log on to the internet but also to make voice calls. In this, there are two main companies working with airlines to offer the service – Onair and Aeromobile – although Aircell has partnered with Delta, in addition to a number of other US and Canadian carriers, to cover more than 1,000 aircraft.
Mainline domestic fleets in the US have been quick to install wifi using Aircell’s Gogo Inflight Internet. On AA, the fee-based service is available on all its 15 B767-200ERs and select MD80s. Its B737-800 fleet is being fitted out at the moment.
From the sign-in page you can enjoy free access to aa.com, the Wall Street Journal’s online headlines and Frommer’s destination guides, and then choose from a menu of pricing options offering either mobile-only or full internet connection via your laptop. The latter costs from US$5 for a single flight of up to 1.5 hours, US$10 for a flight between 1.5 and three hours, and US$13 for a flight over three hours. Each session includes full internet, VPN and email access.
If you are doing a lot of flying in the US then the 30-day pass is worth considering – it costs US$20 for mobile-only or US$30 for full internet access. You can also pay a slightly higher fee of US$40 for 30 days’ full access on any airline equipped with Gogo technology.
The service works with all wifi-enabled devices such as smartphones, with platforms supported including Blackberry, Windows Mobile, Apple and Nokia (Symbian S60). Mobile calls and VoIP (Voice-over Internet Protocol) services such as Skype are not available.
Cathay Pacific and Dragonair
Both of these airlines will offer onboard phone calls and unlimited wifi access on their long- and short-haul fleets from 2012. Passengers will be able to access the internet for free using the onboard IFE system. Blackberry and PDA messaging will be enabled, along with calls, and the charge for doing so will be levied on customers’ own phone bills at normal or close to normal billing rates.
For users of iPads and laptops, a limited number of websites will be available free of charge, including cathaypacific.com and its partners, as well as social media services. Full internet access will be enabled, with only video-streaming and VoIP calls such as Skype disabled.
Cathay’s pricing hasn’t been released but will have flat rates on mid- and long-haul flights. For smartphone users, there is a purpose-built portal that enables internet access for a charge. For the laptop and iPad, your browser will redirect you to the Cathay portal where there is free information from the airlines and a button for internet access. The charge for going online through an iPhone or smartphone is less as it involves a smaller volume of data.
On the controversial topic of mobile phone use on board, Alex McGowan, Cathay’s head of product, says: “We’ve thought long and hard about this. A good proportion of our frequent business traveller community hate the idea and we are very sensitive to that. But other airlines offer mobile phone use and they haven’t had problems. Emirates has 76 aircraft fitted and it has had one complaint in the past two and a half years. The ambient noise of the aircraft, the fact that people chat to each other in their seats and some very clear usage and etiquette guidelines all help to control that environment.”
A code of conduct will be introduced to request that passengers turn their phones to vibrate and speak at a normal volume. Voice calling can be restricted by cabin crew, who will be trained to intercede if necessary. If further issues arise, the airline may disable voice calling altogether, while keeping the internet accessible.
Delta Air Lines
Delta has wifi on most of its domestic fleet. As it is also powered by Aircell’s Gogo Inflight Internet, the pricing is the same as that of AA. Visit delta.com
Egyptair already offers full wifi connectivity on its new A330-300 aircraft serving Cairo-London through a partnership with Onair, the Airbus/SITA-owned company. Described by Onair as “the full suite of connectivity solutions for cabin and cockpit – GSM/GPRS and wifi internet with global coverage”, the system uses Inmarsat Swiftbroadband and allows wifi access via laptops, as well as the ability via mobile phones and smartphones to make and receive calls, send and receive text messages and emails, and access the internet. Despite contacting Egyptair, we’ve been unable to obtain the pricing for these. Visit egyptair.com
The Middle Eastern carrier has confirmed that it will offer broadband internet access on one of its A380 aircraft in the first half of next year, and will then have the capability on all subsequent aircraft deliveries. It currently has mobile phone call capability on more than 75 of its long-haul aircraft using Aeromobile (charges are based on international roaming rates set by mobile service providers), but the new internet capability will involve a switch to competitor Onair. Meanwhile, using Aeromobile, Emirates is about to introduce Blackberry internet capability for the first time on a new B777-300ER entering service. Visit emirates.com
Germany’s flag carrier was one of the early pioneers of broadband internet connection on aircraft with its Connexion by Boeing service. Although that was popular with a small number of travellers, it was unsuccessful in terms of revenue, and was withdrawn in 2006.
Undaunted, the airline is having a second go, installing its Flynet service under a new deal with Panasonic. As with Emirates, Aeromobile is a component of the new system – Lufthansa is installing Panasonic’s Global Communications Suite (GCS) on its long-range aircraft and an integral part of the GCS is eXPhone, which is essentially Aeromobile and allows passenger to make calls, send SMS messages, and use data services.
Lufthansa is reported to be planning “various price models” for the service, such as an hourly charge or a flat monthly rate. Passengers may also be able to redeem Miles and More reward points on the service. Lufthansa says it hopes to equip a “major part” of its long-haul fleet with Flynet in the first year of operation. Visit lufthansa.com
Oman Air was the first airline to offer both mobile voice calls and broadband internet when it launched the service on its fleet of A330s earlier this year. With Onair’s system, passengers can use their mobile phones at all times except during take-off and landing. Mobile calls are of a “roaming nature, as on a foreign network”, so international dialling codes must be used.
An onboard wifi hotspot will also be provided by Onair, allowing passengers to access high-speed broadband internet on their laptops or wifi-enabled smartphones and PDAs. Emails, via a web-based client, and web-chat will incur an extra cost. Oman Air’s internet package costs US$30 for 26MB per flight. Webmail and unlimited web-chat will cost US$10 and US$5 respectively. Visit omanair.comSingapore Airlines
SIA will offer wifi and mobile telephony services from the first half of next year, teaming up with Onair. It will be introduced progressively on flights operated by the airline’s A380, A340-500 and B777-300ERs.
The mobile services will enable customers to send and receive text messages on GSM-compatible phones, send and receive emails on smartphones and Blackberries, and make and receive voice calls. Usage will be added to their own monthly phone bills, with international GSM roaming rates set by their provider applying. For internet, passengers can sign up for an access package on logging in to the system. Details of the charges will be announced closer to the launch in 2011. Visit singaporeair.com
All United’s premium service transcontinental flights between New York JFK and both Los Angeles and San Francisco have the Gogo Inflight Internet service. The prices are the same as those quoted for AA. Visit united.com
Virgin’s new A330s, which are set to arrive next year, will feature a new IFE system with live news updates and instant messaging between seats, as well as mobile phone and email access through a partnership with Panasonic and Aeromobile.
Details of the pricing are yet to be revealed but it is likely that passengers will be billed through their mobile phone provider. Richard Branson says: “If you can get these data services competitively priced and appearing on your own bill then that is where the revolution will come and that is what we are enabling to happen.”
Virgin says it is also working on introducing seat-back e-readers to display digital newspapers and magazines, and enhanced connectivity features including internet access. The carrier has ordered ten A330 aircraft, with the first due to be delivered in the spring. Note that Virgin America currently offers the Gogo Inflight service. Visit virgin-atlantic.com
BA’s new IFE system has appeared on the first of its B777-300ER aircraft and will gradually be introduced to some 24 aircraft over the next couple of years. It will appear on both the new B777-300ER deliveries (six of these) as well as being retrofitted to 18 of the B777-200ERs (the ones currently without audio-video on-demand systems).
The i5000 system from Thales is a definite improvement on the Rockwell Collins system most BA passengers will be familiar with. It has more than 230 TV programmes, 70 films and 400 CDs on demand, as well as new handsets allowing for easier gaming (these do not double up as a phone anymore).
The screens in World Traveller and World Traveller Plus are larger, and are touch sensitive, although those in Club World may find it easier to use the handset because the screen is further away to reach.
The i5000 can support connectivity but BA is waiting to see whether there is demand for it. Gemma Conlon, BA’s customer experience development manager, says the airline has had “very little demand for voice communication” on the A318 flying out of London City, despite the Onair system being capable of supporting it. Visit ba.com.
For more on the B777-300ERs see “New seats for some”, businesstraveller.com/archive/2010/october-2010
The main players offering connectivity onboard
The Aeromobile system is available through Panasonic as an integrated Inflight Communications System, branded eXPhone. It is currently in operation on Emirates flights and Malaysian Airlines, while carriers that have committed to using it include Lufthansa, V Australia, Virgin Atlantic, Air New Zealand, Cathay Pacific and Turkish Airlines. Visit aeromobile.net
Gogo Inflight Internet, powered by Aircell, has systems on Air Canada, Alaskan Airlines, Air Tran, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United, US Airways and Virgin America, among others. Visit gogoinflight.com
As well as Oman Air, Egyptair and Singapore Airlines, other Onair airline customers include TAP Portugal, Wataniya Airways, Royal Jordanian, Qatar Airways, Saudi Arabian Airlines, Air Asia, Libyan Airlines, Hong Kong Airlines, TAM Airlines, Aeroflot and Finnair. Visit onair.aer