Airlines cannot afford to ignore in-flight connectivity: Emirates' Brannelly

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Airlines that do not bring in-flight connectivity on board their aircraft in the coming years will put themselves at a hefty competitive disadvantage even though it is difficult to make money on such solutions, a top Emirates executive warns.

Speaking today at the World Airline Entertainment Association (WAEA) single focus workshop in Los Angeles, Emirates vice-president corporate communications, product, publishing, digital and events Patrick Brannelly said: "You cannot bury your head in the sand and think 'I can't make a profit so we shouldn't do it'."

"It will become a fundamental requirement in years to come and by that I mean it will discourage travellers across the globe if it is not available [on aircraft]," he adds.

Brannelly, who also serves as president of the WAEA, admits that "the big challenge" with airborne communications is trying to make money on it. He says the average usage rate for in-flight connectivity - be it high-speed Internet or narrower band offerings - is "very low" at 3%-5%.

"There is a very low desire amongst the travelling public to pay for anything," he says, "and if you could understand the psychology of that you'd be a very smart person".

If an airline makes in-flight connectivity free to passengers, he notes, "you will get substantial usage, but that is not necessarily an option".

In Emirates' case, the carrier currently offers a cadre of in-flight connectivity solutions to passengers, including satcom phones and seat-back email. The airline is also in the process of fitting its entire fleet with AeroMobile's mobile connectivity solution, which allows passengers to send SMS text messages and voice calls from their own cell phones. Passengers pay the equivalent of international roaming rates for voice.

AeroMobile "is now fitted on over 70 [Emirates] aircraft", says Brannelly, noting that the 2 millionth passenger will switch on their phone during flight in the coming weeks.

"There has not been one incident or complaint or anger, and all that nonsense talked about [in the press] didn't happen. In fact, we're getting complaints from people saying 'why is this not fitted on this aircraft'?"

Emirates is finding that people want to "know that the service is there. "It is a basic need and requirement," he says.

The Middle Eastern carrier also continues to study higher-bandwidth connectivity, including Ku-band satellite-based in-flight Internet for passengers. "Any airline that isn't considering it [Ku], isn't paying attention," Brannelly told ATI on the sidelines of the conference.

He acknowledges that airlines are typically reluctant to make big investments during cyclical downturns in the industry. But he points out that Emirates' mantra has always been: "If you deliver a great product, you get a profit."

"Getting the mix right is what marketing is about. It would be easy to offer nothing, but we would actually make less profit. We are in the business to make money."

Also, cooperation in the industry can help to drive costs down in the in-flight connectivity sector, he adds. "The more the industry works together, the more costs are reduced and we drive efficiencies."

Finding a way to bring in-flight connectivity to passengers is ultimately necessary for carriers, according to Brannelly. "Changes are coming. We're not going to stop it. We have to be thinking much further ahead."

"The world, our customer base, is becoming mobile in their communications needs. [They are] always on, 24/7. We need to be ready as a group to serve them."