Passengers making the connection, say CES panellists
“With its Gogo service Aircell is doing what Boeing did with Connexion to bring broadband connectivity to the cabin, but with a business model that works for both airline and service provider,” American Airlines’ Doug Backelin said at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas yesterday. “So far the general reaction of our passengers and crew to the service has been extremely positive.”
Inflight communications and technology manager for the US carrier, Backelin was speaking on a WAEA-sponsored, Inflight Online-moderated panel on air-to-ground connectivity. His upbeat tone was echoed by fellow panellist Patrick Brannelly of Emirates. “Crews tell us that passengers now make a point of asking if the AeroMobile cellphone service is available on their aircraft,” he said.
An audience of consumer electronics specialists heard that the two services, each the first of its kind in the world, were clearly showing that significant numbers of passengers want connectivity in the cabin.
“Our customers use it for things like email, corporate network and Web access, streaming audio, looking at YouTube and other media sites - exactly what they do in hotspots on the ground,” said Backelin. “On transcontinental flights users are averaging fully three and a half hours logged on. In my experience a 5-6hr journey just flies by when you’re online.”
American started trialling Gogo in 15 domestic Boeing 767s on August 20. “Since then the system has performed brilliantly – for something entirely new it has been very impressive,” said Backelin. “We tested it thoroughly before we put it in front of our customers, and that’s paying off for us.”
As implemented in the American 767s, the service offers passengers free access to the airline’s own AA.com and the Wall Street Journal – “It’s an incentive to passengers to buy the service,” Backelin said. Passengers that do sign up spend a lot of time on the Web, with sites like Google, YouTube, the New York Times and Yahoo at the top of the list. Connection speeds are reported to be similar to those offered by an office LAN or a good domestic DSL line on the ground.
Passengers are using both wireless laptops and handhelds with the service. Laptops account for 80 per cent of usage, with smartphones accounting for the rest. With fully three-quarters of the smartphone traffic, the iPhone and iPod Touch are the most popular handheld devices. “This could be because iPhone has been WiFi-capable from the start, whereas WiFi has been slower to arrive in the BlackBerry and other similar devices,” Backelin speculated.
The American trial was scheduled to last three to six months and is now drawing to a close. “We’re now talking to senior management about the data from the trial and making an assessment,” said Backelin. “But the service will continue on the 767s while the decision process is under way – it won’t be suddenly pulled. We expect to decide this year, and if we go with it we’ll look at installing Gogo across our MD-80 and Boeing 737 and 757 fleets.”
Emirates committed to full implementation of AeroMobile a couple of years ago and started installations last March. The number of aircraft equipped stands at 27, a figure that’s growing at an average of three aircraft a month. “Each installation now takes less than two days,” reported Brannelly, the Dubai airline’s VP for passenger communications and visual services. “AeroMobile carried out the first 25 installations, then our engineers took over, using AeroMobile-supplied kits.”
The airline currently plans to equip 125 aircraft – Airbus A330s, A340s and A380s, and Boeing 777s. “All 18 of our A340s will be done by summer,” said Brannelly. “They will be the first sub-fleet to be completed. That will yield complete predictability for passengers who fly the A340 routes – they will be able to bank on finding the service on board.”
Brannelly said that typically up to 60 people switch on their phones on each AeroMobile-equipped flight, with many more doing so from time to time. “Of course, almost everyone carries a mobile on to aircraft these days, and we believe the rest don’t switch on for two reasons,” he continued. “Either they don’t watch the video telling them that they may use their phones, or they leave their phones out of reach in bags, believing they won’t be able to use them. We expect this to change as service availability and awareness grow.”
Take-up is also affected by the number of cellular roaming agreements that AeroMobile has been able to secure with mobile operators. “The total is growing rapidly but it’s still possible for a passenger to find that his home operator doesn’t have a roaming agreement with AeroMobile,” commented Brannelly.
Those passengers that do make calls after switching on their phones pay a variety of prices depending on the home operator’s mark-up. “It can sometimes be surprisingly good value,” commented Brannelly. “For instance, it costs a British O2 subscriber no more to call the UK from an aircraft than from the ground in Dubai.”
Emirates has always obtained good results from its in-seat Inmarsat-supported phone service and Brannelly is keen to see whether it can co-exist with the AeroMobile service. “We plan to look in detail at demand for the seatback service in aircraft that are AeroMobile-equipped,” he revealed. “It could turn out that seatback usage is actually higher than normal, for two reasons: passenger frustration at finding that his home operator has no roaming agreement, or increased awareness of the communications possibilities as a result of the AeroMobile promotion in the aircraft.”
Looking to the future, Emirates plans to start equipping its A380s before the end of next year. The big double-deckers already have provision for the rival OnAir system but have still to be certificated for AeroMobile’s equipment. “The A380 installation will offer the GPRS capability needed by Blackberries and other smartphones. This will be supported by Inmarsat’s SwiftBroadband 432kbit/sec service, which will soon be available worldwide. Our general goal is clear: to enable passengers to use their phones and BlackBerries just as they do on the ground.”
But full-up Internet access for laptops could be some time in coming to Emirates passengers, Brannelly confided. “Such services have got to be affordable and globally available, and the provider must have a long-term future,” he emphasised. “I have a lot of faith in SwiftBroadband – people will do a lot of interesting things with it – but it can’t offer as much capacity as services like Gogo and Connexion by Boeing.