Less than two weeks before the show opened, Portuguese airline TAP announced the start of a single-aircraft trial of the OnAir onboard mobile phone service. This was the latest step along a rocky road for OnAir and rival AeroMobile.
The two companies – OnAir is owned by Airbus and SITA, AeroMobile by ARINC and Norwegian telecoms operator Telenor – have had to pilot their offerings into the marketplace in the face of initial fears about airworthiness and, more recently, a US-inspired witch-hunt about the possibility of phone-inspired air rage.
The airworthiness question has been finally answered by EASA’s certification of airborne equipment from both providers. And now the “social issues” argument is beginning to crumble as a result of Emirates’ successful introduction of the world’s first fully commercial service earlier this year.
Renowned for the quality of its cabin product, the Dubai-based carrier is rolling out AeroMobile’s voice and data service across its entire fleet. The man responsible for the decision to offer mobile phone is Patrick Brannelly, VP for passenger communications and visual services.
Speaking a few weeks after the launch of the service at an event organised by mobile satellite operator Inmarsat, which supplies the air-to-ground link, he said: “We’ve had no complaints or incidents since launch. On the maiden flight in April passengers responded matter-of-factly, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. They just switched on their phones and got on with it.”
The dread social issues failed to materialise for a number of reasons, according to Brannelly. The first is the racket already produced in the cabin by a turbulent boundary layer pelting past the aircraft skin at four times the speed of a hurricane on the ground. “On airliners the cabin noise level is such that you just can’t hear people making phone calls. What’s more, for most of the time people have IFE headsets on, and the call quality is so good that there’s no need to shout.”
About 25 calls were made on the Emirates inaugural flight, from Dubai to Casablanca on March 20. “But a colleague travelling on the aircraft was unaware of that because he could hear nobody talking on the phone,” said Brannelly. “As for endless conversations, we never expected people to talk at great length at international roaming rates of $2/min and more. The longest call on the first flight was 4.5min, and the average on more recent flights is 2.5min.”
Emirates introduced the service on a single Airbus A340-300. This was the first step in a programme to equip the entire fleet before the end of next year, and the airline has pushed on with multiple certifications since launch. An AeroMobile-equipped A340-500 carried out its maiden flight with the service to Sydney at the end of May, and the first Boeing 777 was due out of the hangar at about the same time.
“Aircraft are being fitted out at a rate of one every seven days,” said Brannelly. Our new Boeing 777-300ERs are being line-fitted and delivered equipped. We’re working on A330 certification and expect to secure it within the next couple of months. We also plan to offer the service on our A380s, the first of which is due to enter operation at the beginning of August.”
Around 45% of passengers on the equipped aircraft were switching on their phones, Brannelly reported. “Incoming calls outnumber outgoing two to one, while there are four times as many text messages as voice calls,” he said. “It’s all proof to me that people want this service. I expect usage to increase as people realise they need to get roaming agreements from their mobile providers, and frequent fliers check their bills and find that it’s not hugely expensive after all.”
On the equipped aircraft an AeroMobile video is played after take-off to explain and promote the service. “There’s no prior promotion at the moment, and there won’t be until a whole cohort of aircraft dedicated to a particular route is ready,” said Brannelly. “The video explains the service and encourages good behaviour such as setting phones to silent/vibrate mode for the whole flight.”
If the airline does feel the need to influence how the service is used, both AeroMobile and rival OnAir provide the cabin crew with a control panel. “In fact the system effectively runs itself,” said Brannelly. “We want our cabin crew serving passengers, not managing complex systems.”
Emirates plans to introduce GPRS capability to support BlackBerry email by the end of the year. “This is the killer app,” declared Brannelly. “I expect it to be hugely popular. GPRS-capable handheld devices like the BlackBerry are the future, and I expect other approaches to data communications to fall by the wayside.”
OnAir’s hopes for its own high-profile full commercial launch are pinned on Ryanair. The European low-fare carrier is equipping up to 30 of its Boeing 737s for what it calls a trial, but which OnAir sees as the start of a fleet fit. Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary makes no secret of his enthusiasm for a potential money-spinner – “We’ll be encouraging all our passengers to text or phone Mammy or Granny to say they’ll be home soon!” he declared recently.
Besides Ryanair and TAP, OnAir has agreements with Air France, which is currently trialling the service on an Airbus A318; UK carrier BMI, which is about to launch a similar trial; and AirAsia, AirAsia X, Jazeera Airlines, Kingfisher Airlines, Oman Air, Royal Jordanian and Shenzhen Airlines.
For AeroMobile, Emirates is the biggest name on a customer list that also includes Qantas, which is to equip its domestic fleet after a successful 10-month trial that ended earlier this year, and Australian long-haul start-up V Australia, which from the end of this year will receive new Boeing 777s with the AeroMobile functions integrated into the Panasonic IFE system. The company says it has programmes under way with another five airlines, comprising Saudia, Turkish Airlines and three unnamed carriers.
The last few years haven’t been easy for the onboard cellphone providers. Despite producing systems that address all the concerns of the airworthiness and telecoms authorities, they have come close to being shouted down by the anti-phone lobby. But now the first service is up and running and the signs are that mobile phones will become a completely normal part of life in the airliner cabin within the next few years.