WASHINGTON-Even as U.S. airlines plan to roll out in-flight broadband services this year, U.S. government restrictions on airline cell phone use are likely to put U.S. carriers at a global competitive disadvantage, a panel of aviation executives said Feb. 5.
Under an agreement signed by American and European carriers in 2007, the airlines will be able to compete in each other’s market for transatlantic flights beginning in March. European regulators approved the in-flight use of cell phones, BlackBerry devices and other smart phones last summer.
“Our research and experience around the world point to hugely significant pent-up demand for use of personal cell phones, not just for text and data but for voice calls, too,” said David Coiley, the director of marketing and strategic relationships for AeroMobile, a joint venture of Norwegian commercial telecommunications firm Telenor and ground-to-air equipment provider ARINC.
Using a system that controls the power output of all mobile devices, AeroMobile’s systems are already in use on Australia’s Quantas Airlines. The company is testing or has signed deals for airline cell phone use with carriers in Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. Air France and other European carriers are also planning on offering cell phone service along broadband connections.
Benoit Debains of France’s OnAir, which developed the online and voice service for Air France, said three other European carriers and airlines in China, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and India are all planning voice and data services.
“Airlines from every continent show that passengers are eager to use the handsets for in-flight communication and this will become a worldwide requirement,” Debains said.
Coiley agreed. “Passengers want the choice to be able to use their cell phones in the air the same way they use them on the ground,” he said.
For U.S. carriers, the use of cell phones for voice is a moot point since the application is banned on U.S. flights. However, the Federal Communications Commission has approved the use of broadband, without VOIP services, on planes. The ability to find a Wi-Fi connection on a U.S. plane opens Internet connections for not only laptops and smart phones but also for the increasing number of Wi-Fi equipped gadgets.
Airlines consider broadband
“In order for U.S. carriers to remain competitive, any in-flight connectivity service must support a global reach,” Paul Domorski, president and CEO of EMS Technologies, said. “There’s a more rapid rate [of cell phone in-flight use] outside the U.S. than inside the U.S.”
EMS is a little known but long time player in the avionics market. EMS developed electronically controlled antenna for space flight and teamed with JetBlue Airlines to deliver live television service for passengers. Building on that success, JetBlue is the first U.S. airline to offer free e-mail and text messaging.
Other domestic carriers aim to provide full web surfing services. American Airlines is testing broadband on its Boeing 767-200s. Meanwhile Southwest Airlines recently announced it planned to launch broadband service by this summer. Alaska Airlines is also close to rolling out broadband service on its flights.
According to American Airlines, its broadband service will provide customers with an Internet connection, VPN access, and e-mail capabilities through all Wi-Fi-enabled laptops, PDAs and portable gaming devices.
“There’s a tremendous amount of intrigue and appeal for travelers to be able to utilize the Internet when traveling 30,000 feet above the United States at 500 miles per hour,” Dan Garton, American’s executive vice president for marketing, said in a January statement introducing the service. “Connectivity is important to our business customers and those who want to use their PDAs and laptops for real-time, full-service, in-flight, broadband Internet, e-mail and VPN.”
JetBlue is a bit more circumspect about airline broadband service.
“The majority of frequent business and leisure travelers want some type of connectivity,” said Brett Muney, JetBlue’s general manager of product development. “But, it becomes a question of the business model and whether airlines offer this for free or whether they charge a fee.”
Muney added it’s all a matter of what the customer wants. “Our customers have told us they will support silent options like e-mail and instant messaging, but the ability to talk on cell phones will interfere with their core JetBlue experience,” he said.
EMS’ Domorski said U.S. use of cell phones on planes is inevitable.
“It is not really a question of ‘if’ airlines are going to make mobile communications to the flying public but ‘when’ and ‘how,'” Domorski said. “We should demand that our regulatory agencies recognize the power of the market and support innovation in both technology and business models aimed at making the passenger experience a richer one.”
And, perhaps, a noisier one.