Since the turn of the century, the growth in mobile phone usage has been nothing short of a phenomenon. A new report released by the International Telecommunication Union predicts that cellular subscriptions across the globe will reach about the four billion mark by the end of this year. Penetration in the air travel sector is equally staggering with road warriors and pleasure seekers alike now relying on mobile phones as indispensable communication tools. Indeed, an estimated 90% or more of all airline passengers currently use the devices to stay in touch and informed.
Increasingly, travellers are carrying sophisticated, software-enhanced smartphones, including the highly-popular RIM BlackBerry, Apple iPhone, Google Android, Nokia S60 and Windows Mobile. The proliferation of these and other high-tech wireless handhelds has caught the attention of airlines, which see a golden opportunity to connect with passengers on a new level to improve customer service, cut costs and potentially grow revenue.
Initially, airlines are offering real-time flight updates, booking services, check-in and boarding via mobile phones. But personal digital assistants and web-enabled mobile phones also have the potential to hold baggage tracking information and payment data, making travel "truly paperless and location independent", says air transport IT specialist SITA. In the future, mobile phones might also be used to store visa and biometric information.
"Mobile is a huge opportunity for us in travel. By the very nature of it, a lot of our customers spend a lot of time away from their desks and their personal computers," says British Airways planning and innovations manager Chris Carmichael. Strategy-wise, however, BA sees customer service as the primary use for mobile. "I know some airlines have done some work with selling [advertising], but I think it's probably stronger as a servicing channel at the moment," he adds.
From the USA to the Middle East, airlines are taking those first steps towards meeting the needs of what SITA calls "digital travellers". One of the simpler solutions involves offering basic web applications for iPhone users to access key services of carriers' websites. American, Delta, easyJet and Northwest Airlines - as well as a raft of travel companies - make this service available to customers.
"By the very nature of it, a lot of our customers spend a lot of time away from their desks"
Planning & Innovation manager, BA
In July BA took the unique approach of making its iPhone application available for free at the iTunes store. The application gives real-time flight arrival and departure information, the full BA timetable, and enables access to the carrier's website. "The cool thing on that is you can set up your favourites for arrivals and departures," says Carmichael. Blackberry customers in the UK can also synch their booking to their online calendar and receive online check-in reminders: this is expected to be rolled out internationally.
The iTunes application is "very impressive from a user perspective", says Wale Adepoju, chief executive of IMDC, a group of specialist consultants in the airline, in-flight entertainment and media industries. "There are a lot of things that can be done that way."
Paperless mobile check-in is another solution being quickly adopted by airlines. From 2009, Qantas Airways passengers who select their seat online will be automatically checked-in and have a 2D barcode sent to their mobile phone, portable device or personal computer 24 hours prior to their flight.
"Domestic customers electing to receive their boarding pass on their mobile phone or portable device can have a paperless experience, from booking, to check-in to boarding," says Qantas manager product and service strategy Stephanie Tully. "Customers with baggage can proceed directly to the bag drop facilities before they too will be able to head straight for their flight."
Championing Delta's mobile check-in trial at New York LaGuardia this summer, the carrier's director of sales and marketing for New York, Brian Rutter, said: "Imagine checking in for your flight, for example, when in your taxi or car to the airport, or when you're walking from the parking lot to the Delta terminal. Go right through the doors to the TSA [Transportation Security Administration] security line - mobile device in hand - and you're on your way. It works if you're checking bags, too. Just head for the Delta bag drop location prior to security screening."
BA's Carmichael describes another scenario whereby this service will prove beneficial: "Your meeting is overrunning, you whip out your Blackberry under your desk, check out your flight, change to the next flight, check-in and get your seat sorted all without leaving the meeting room. It sounds quite attractive."
According to the 2008 Airline Business/SITA IT Trends Survey, some 20% of carriers already offer mobile phone check-in. The survey also showed that 70% of airlines are likely to introduce mobile phone boarding.
There appears to be a clear benefit for mobile phone boarding on domestic flights. However, international operations pose greater challenges. SITA chief technology officer Jim Peters notes that while IATA is working hard on pushing the barcode standard, security rules - especially ones governing movement coming in and out of the USA - will likely impact the adoption process.
International travel "more and more requires a desk visit to verify a passport or ID card so anybody travelling in and out of the USA, for example, has to have his or her passport checked", says BA's Carmichael. "The benefit of having a paperless boarding is a walk straight through the airport. As soon as you start to introduce desk visits, the need for that starts to fade," he says, adding: "I think there are other things I would probably concentrate on."
As handhelds become laden with new software applications, however, other functionality could be pursued, including passenger tracking. According to research from the UK's Cambridge University, mobile phones if used as passenger tracking devices could save struggling airlines up to $600 million by reducing flight delays and improving turnaround times. "I see the benefit of GPS integrated with your itinerary and calendar," says SITA's Peters.
This type of programme would give security and airport personnel real-time information to speed people through security or move them more quickly through baggage claim. Information technology and IFE consultant Michael Planey says there is an idea currently under consideration that would use mobile phones to track the flow of people on the highway to provide real-time traffic information. "The interesting concept would be to apply the same thing to the airport experience," he adds.
At the moment, using mobile phones in this fashion is "an untapped medium", notes IMDC's Adepoju. "From a vision perspective, logic would say in an airport you have a community of people all armed with mobile phones. From a communications, safety and regulatory perspective, if you get the permission you can broadcast valuable information back and forth."
While the benefit of harnessing mobile connectivity on the ground is increasingly attractive to airlines, many also see a value proposition in supporting connectivity in-flight. One of the big advantages to this is that passengers could re-accommodate themselves in the event that they are on a delayed flight.
"Really the next step is when cell phones [and PDAs] are enabled in-flight. I think that the biggest reason for that is, in all the conversations I've had with airlines, every marketing department head and CIO thinks it would be really great to eliminate the queue at the end of the flight when a plane is late," says Planey. "They won't have 40 people trying to find out about their recommendation."
OnAir offers an in-flight GSM/GPRS service called Mobile OnAir that has already been trialled by Air France, and has secured a growing list of trial and fully committed customers, including Ryanair. The cost to passengers is similar to international roaming rates. Airlines get paid from a share of the revenue generated from the cabin. "Clearly Ryanair is going to push this as revenue generation and I have full confidence in its ability to market this to passengers," says OnAir chief executive Benoit Debains.
OnAir's rival, Arinc/Telenor joint venture AeroMobile, is also seeing its business grow. Emirates in March launched the world's first authorised calls on a commercial airline using AeroMobile's technology. The Middle Eastern carrier has been championing the technology ever since as yet a further way to differentiate itself from its competitors.
"I see the benefit of having GPS integrated with your itinerary and calendar"
Chief technology officer, SITA
"When you get off an airplane, you want to feel like it wasn't arduous. It was easy and you want to do it again. And I firmly believe that the in-flight technology we put on the aircraft contributes to a very positive experience on the journey," explains Emirates vice-president for passenger communications Patrick Brannelly.
Qantas from early 2009 will also roll out the AeroMobile service on a number of Airbus A330-200 and Boeing 767-300 aircraft. "The Australian domestic market has a large component of business travellers and these travellers often regard domestic flying as an extension of their business day. Therefore, the ability to stay in touch with colleagues, family and friends via SMS and email was highly valued by Qantas customers," says Tully at Qantas.
At present, BA does not have plans to allow the use of mobile phones on board aircraft. This decision follows surveys conducted with customers "where we found the strength of feeling against the introduction of mobile phone technology outweighed those in favour", says the carrier.
However, when BA launches service from London City Airport to New York next year, the technology will be available to download data via handheld devices. BA is also considering whether to use such technology on the new aircraft it is introducing to its fleet over the next few years.
Planey believes the attraction of offering some level of in-flight connectivity to these and other carriers goes back to the fundamental problem with airline travel. "The passengers are disconnected from their normal life for a period of 90 minutes or six hours. Anything that is done that connects them to that normal experience helps alleviate problems that passengers face when they are stuck inside the aircraft," he says.
But the in-flight proposition "is sort of an icing on the cake as part of the whole strategy for mobile commerce", says IMDC's Adepoju. He suggests that airlines cannot offer in-flight solutions "in isolation" unless they are "just looking for a short-term enhancement". At the same time, however, he questions whether the service will give airlines the financial windfall that some industry players are predicting. "It's an obviously valuable service, to business travellers especially. We don't see it as something that is going to make anybody rich overnight," he explains.
While European and Middle Eastern carriers press forward with plans to offer in-flight mobile connectivity, the USA is far behind the curve. The US Federal Communications Commission and the FAA maintain a ban on the in-flight usage of mobile phones. Additionally, some federal regulators have thrown their support behind legislation called the "Hang-Up Act", which aims to formally outlaw the use of mobile phones for voice communications. They cite public concern that the service will prove a nuisance if abused by chatty passengers.
In an effort "to balance the discussion and make sure that updated, accurate information is available to the parties", AeroMobile and OnAir have joined together to form the Passenger Communications Coalition, says AeroMobile vice-president strategy and external relationships David Coiley. "We've got data to back up that the sky hasn't fallen on anyone's head from this [in-flight mobile phone usage]," he says.
One issue that could further slow adoption of in-flight mobile phone connectivity in the USA is the now broad availability of connectivity over Wi-Fi enabled laptops and handhelds. American recently went live with Aircell's Gogo Internet service, which operates over an air-to-ground link. Air Canada, Delta and Virgin America are quickly following suit.
A more basic ATG service supplied by JetBlue Airways subsidiary LiveTV is being rolled out by the low-cost carrier. Other operators, including Alaska and Southwest Airlines, have turned to Row 44 for a Ku-band-based satellite service that will support broadband connectivity in-flight.
For those travellers in the USA who simply must have access to their mobile phone's voicemail messages, a solution is available. Technology firm SpinVox, which captures spoken messages and converts them into text, is now targeting US travellers. With SpinVox, passengers can continue to receive their voice messages via email in a data-only environment and respond via email while in the air, or by voice and SMS text once on the ground.
"This can be a lifesaver as voicemail messages have a half-life of 30 minutes or less and 98% of all domestic flights are an hour or more, gate-to-gate," says Richard Stern, senior vice-president and general manager of SpinVox's growth telecom unit.
Despite the ever-growing roster of mobility services being made available to airline passengers, BA's Carmichael cautions that this is "still very, very early days" and that the mobile channel is likely to change rapidly. "I often remind people what the web experience was like back in 1999 and 2000 I expect the whole customer expectation and customer experience to be very different in the next few years," he says.
Qantas has put its first Airbus A380 into service, see what the product is like at: flightglobal.com/qantasA380