Is it just 'plane' annoying?

The introduction of in-flight mobile phone services by Emirates Airline has fuelled industry debate about the possible client response. Arabian Travel News investigates the potential impact of the service on your clients.

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By  Administrator Published  May 6, 2008

The introduction of in-flight mobile phone services by Emirates Airline has fuelled industry debate about the possible client response. Arabian Travel News investigates the potential impact of the service on your clients.

Dubai is all about firsts, so when Emirates Airline recently became the first carrier in the world to introduce in-flight mobile phone services, it came as no surprise.

People prefer to use their own phones rather than a set-back system.

However, a recent survey of travel agents attending the Pacific Asia Travel Association's (PATA) 'What's new in Asia Pacific 2008' seminar staged in Dubai revealed that 68% of participants believed the service should not be allowed.

So, should they or shouldn't they?

The results of this agent survey offer a stark contrast to YouGovSiraj research conducted in November 2007.

The results of this MENA-wide traveller survey showed that 47% of the region's business travellers and 43% of leisure travellers would like complete freedom to use their mobile phones on board flights, with less than 20% against airlines introducing the service.

This might suggest that agents are out of touch with the demands of their clients, but apparently not, according to Jane Wilson, the director of travel and tourism for YouGovSiraj.

"The sample covered almost 4000 people, so it is very reliable. It is a cultural thing; the survey covered 20 countries in the MENA region, so the majority of respondents were Arab nationals. Westerners are far more against it," she explained.

"I think if you look around the local markets and notice the number of mobiles that people have and the constant use of them then it isn't such a surprise."

A YouGov UK poll supports Wilson's opinion, showing that 56% of British travellers were against in-flight mobile phone use compared to just 16% who wanted the service to be introduced.

There are currently two service providers able to offer the technology for in-flight mobile use - OnAir and AeroMobile - and Emirates Airline has already equipped an Emirates Airbus A340-300 aircraft and a Boeing 777-300 aircraft with the Aeromobile system.

The Dubai-based airline is fully behind the new service and is planning to invest US $27 million to fit out its fleet with the Aeromobile system.

"Mobile phones have become such a part of people's lives today that there is a growing expectation from people that they will be able to stay in touch [onboard] in a way they are comfortable with," said Patrick Brannelly, vice president, passenger communications and visual services for Emirates Airline.

"People prefer to use their own phones rather than a set-back system and Aeromobile also allows passengers to receive calls and texts, which is an important part of staying in touch and being contactable, even when you fly."

The Aeromobile system automatically switches on after take-off and when the aircraft reaches 20,000ft, an in-flight briefing video will play and Emirates cabin crew will announce that passengers' mobile phones can be switched on.

"Each passenger's phone will then receive a free text message from the Aeromobile system advising them to switch their phones to silent mode," explained Brannelly.

"The system will be switched off as the aircraft begins its descent, with a text advising passengers to switch of at 23,000ft before the system is automatically switched off at 20,000ft."

Despite this carefully controlled timeframe for mobile phone usage and Brannelly's insistence that passengers having their phones on silent mode will prevent anybody being disturbed, the obvious worry is that those passengers not using the service will complain about the constant babble of voices while they are trying to relax.

"I think people will complain and people will vote with their feet; you're never going to make everybody happy all of the time, but I'm sure it will find its natural balance. Maybe it won't be as intrusive as people expect" said YouGovSiraj's Wilson.

The opportunity to make in-flight calls using credit-card swipe phones has been in place for many years "without impacting on passengers' comfort levels", Brannelly argued.

"On Emirates' flights, between 7000 and 8000 calls are made each month without any problems at all, clearly showing that many Emirates passengers wish to stay in touch by phone when they fly," he said.

"The airline's cabin crew will be in full control of the system at all times and will ensure the comfort of all passengers at all times," he added.

Emirates has also argued that these measures will ensure passengers are not disturbed and the service also has its own limitations with only five or six passengers able to use it at one time.

"The novelty of mobiles has faded and the days of the proud new mobile owners yelling down their brick-sized phones have disappeared. The majority of people know how to behave," said Brannelly.

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