Qatar Airways will begin offering in-flight mobile communication services in October as part of a unique new programme with OnAir which gives the carrier the flexibility to turn off all or parts of the system during certain periods of the flight.
Qatar CEO Akbar Al Baker says the first aircraft to be equipped with the Mobile OnAir system, an Airbus A320, will be placed into service in October and Qatar's entire fleet should be equipped by 2014. He says passengers will be able to speak on their mobile phones as well as access emails and the Internet, but not at all times.
"In my airline we have the capability to switch off all the mobile communications if we find out that it is bothering passengers," Al Baker says.
OnAir, in initially announcing the deal with Qatar in April, said the carrier had opted for non-voice mobile although the system can be changed to allow mobile calls if demand warrants. Speaking to reporters at a media briefing in Washington DC on 23 July, Al Baker says Qatar has decided to allow the use of mobile phones from the beginning of the programme but only during certain times.
"We already know what the reaction is of the passenger because our competitors are already [getting negative feedback]," Al Baker says. "Passengers are getting [annoyed], especially at certain times of the flight - at night for example."
He says Qatar will "definitely" not allow the use of mobile phones at night. During other times it will also turn off the mobile phone functionality if passengers are bothered by other passengers speaking on their phones.
He says flight attendants may also turn off the email and Internet functions if this part of the service is irritating passengers. "Some people receive email that makes a sound which we don't want. So we have the capability to switch it off," Al Baker explains.
"We will not allow people to receive email with a very large sound," he adds. "We'll of course warn passengers if the requirements are not met and the system will be switched off."
Al Baker says Qatar had to fight hard with OnAir to get the capability to switch off the service because the in-flight mobile communications supplier's business model is based on passengers using the system throughout the flight. OnAir's revenues are generated by passengers using the services with the airline customer typically receiving a slice of the pie and not having to cover any of the installation costs.
"There was a very big pissing match between us and OnAir because they want to make revenue on all of this," Al Baker says. "We told them we also want to make revenue. But the comfort of our passengers will take precedence over any revenue we will generate. Losing a passenger is far more revenue than we would make from their cell phone.
"They [OnAir executives] feel if they have this facility the airline will be drawn to switching the system off. We told them: 'Yes we will [switch it off to protect the] comfort of our passengers.' Imagine if you are asleep and the guy next to you is speaking. Anyway if you want to make an important call we have a satellite phone available and that will still be there."
Asked why other OnAir customers have not insisted on having the capability to turn off the service, Al Baker says: "Certain airlines are just focused on revenues. We're not using this for revenues but to give passengers an extra facility. We are a very high class upmarket airline."
Al Baker says while A320s will be the first aircraft in Qatar's fleet to receive the new service, the carrier's Boeing 777 fleet is already wired for the OnAir system and will also offer the service as soon as the antenna is certified.
He says all future aircraft Qatar receives will also be delivered with the OnAir equipment already installed but the carrier will not retrofit aircraft which are scheduled to be replaced in the next couple of years. For example, Qatar's A330s will not be retrofitted because they are going to be replaced with Boeing 787s and Airbus A350s.