x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Emirates forges the way for mobile communication services

In 1996, Emirates Airline was the first carrier to put a phone in every aircraft seat. Twelve years later, it invested US$26 million to allow people to use their mobile phones on its planes.

In 1996, Emirates Airline was the first carrier to put a phone in every aircraft seat. Twelve years later, it invested US$26 million to allow people to use their mobile phones on its planes.

At a rate of $5 a minute, Emirates allows its passengers who do not have roaming to make calls.

“People like to know for $5 a minute, I’ll just make a quick phone call, I’ll time it and then hang up,” says Patrick Brannelly, the vice-president of corporate communications marketing and brand product, publishing, digital and events at Emirates.

“We collect this money and we pay for the satellite time. We don’t make money. It’s seen as a service, because a lot of people don’t have global roaming on their mobile phone.”

By the end of last year, some 329 Middle East-based aircraft offered mobile services. Meanwhile, 199 aircraft offered both Wi-Fi and mobile connectivity, according to US-based IHS research.

Passengers who do have roaming on their cellphones can connect to their telecoms operator, such as Etisalat, Vodafone, and Orange. They usually pay different rates based on the prices set by their provider.

“I’ve seen some telcos charging less for their users to make phone calls on the aircraft. They charge less than what [the operators] are paying for it,” says Mr Brannelly.

“The reason is they know that if people get a massive phone bill they will think about changing their phone company,” he adds.

Onboard mobile communications is considered safe because it connects to what is called a “picocell” on the aircraft, which does not cause cockpit interference, says Heath Lockett, a senior analyst of aerospace at IHS.

The picocell acts as a small, local transmitter which is easily picked up by any cellular devices on the aircraft – as opposed to a regular transmitter on the ground, which may be too far away.

“Connecting to a picocell is considered safe, because without it cellphones emit larger amounts of power in an attempt to find a cell tower on the ground with which to communicate,” says Mr Lockett.

Despite the availability of in-flight calls they are not well regarded among passengers in much the same way as using a mobile in the cinema is thought of as inconsiderate to others.

“The major social issue for most people is onboard calling, but the evidence does show that this is not what passengers generally want to use cellular connectivity for,” says Mr Lockett. “Indeed, airlines are able to ban voice calls if they do provide a cellular link – and many do this already.”

And with passengers on board more inclined to text, check their emails and browse the internet, IHS says, the chances of hearing a loud chorus of “Shhhhhh” up and down the aisles are probably small.

selgazzar@thenational.ae

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