Talking to Emirates About Onboard Mobile Phone Use (Across the Aisle Interview)

Last week, I had the chance Across the Aisle from Emiratesto chat with Patrick Brannelly, Emirates VP Passenger Communications and Visual Services. The topic? Onboard mobile phone use. This should spark some pretty interesting debate.

Patrick was very encouraged by what he’s seeing on Emirates so far, and he thinks much of the anti-phone hype is just that . . . hype. Does that mean that the rest of the world should adopt it? It’s obviously quite a complicated subject, but I must admit that seeing how it’s being used in real life makes me less averse to the idea in general.

You can decide for yourself.


Cranky: Hi Patrick, thanks for taking the time to talk with me about mobile phone usage onboard today. I understand that you’re seeing some very good response to the program.

Patrick: Yes, we are. We now have it on 37 or 38 aircraft and we launched it over a year ago. We’re seeing about 35% of people switch their phones on – sometimes as high as 65% of known passengers. These are people who switch their phones on. Some who switch it on can’t roam or don’t have roaming agreements, so not all can use it. In the last year since we launched, over a quarter of a million people switched a phone on on an Emirates flight. We’ve never had a single complaint. People like to message. There’s been a lot of use of SMS.

Cranky: What aircraft types are those 37 or 38 aircraft?

Patrick: The Aeromobile system is on a number of aircraft types – the A330, A340-300, and also the 777s. I believe it’s on 5 aircraft types and we’re installing about one a week.

Cranky: Will it be on the entire fleet?

Patrick: That’s the plan. We have seen some complaints of people not being able to use their mobile phone on the plane, so we want to make sure they have the service.

Cranky: But you say you haven’t seen any complaints from passengers about people using their phones?

Patrick: No. I think it’s a little bit of journalistic hysteria. Nobody likes to be sitting next to someone who is jabbering away, but there are a lot of natural self limiters to prevent that.

  1. It is roaming. People speak less when the price is a little bit higher. These calls are still via satellite so it does cost more.

  2. At any time on a long haul aircraft, roughly about one third of the people you’re trying to call are asleep. We are seeing almost zero calls on night flights.

  3. It is only allowed five calls on an aircraft at a time. I heard a US Senator or someone say he didn’t want to hear 100 calls on a plane at the same time. That wouldn’t happen; it’s impossible right now.

  4. We have TVs on every seat, so passengers are watching programs with their headphones on and not listening to phone conversations.

Cranky: Are you seeing certain geographic areas getting more usage than others?

Patrick: Asia is turning out to have a lot more text messages as a percentage. If you go to Asia, a place like Japan, the use of a phone in a public place is very persona non grata. They like to text.

Cranky: But are there certain flights where you’re seeing more usage than others?

Patrick: Oddly enough, we’re seeing a lot of voice traffic before you get into countries that are more expensive to roam into. People are trying to make the call before they land. But one thing to note, even on the most heavy use flight, we’ve only seen three concurrent calls at one time. We rarely see two concurrent calls, but we do.

Cranky: Really? So you’ve never even hit the limit. Interesting. What about specifically on flights to the US? What has usage looked like?

Patrick: I don’t believe we have actually flown the system to the US. The reason for that is that the US is served with very specific aircraft types. None of the 777LR or A380s have that yet.

Cranky: But you could use it on US flights if you wanted to, right?

Patrick: It would be switched off on US flights. Even if we wanted to use it over the US, it would have to be disabled because the US uses a different system. It can’t be used without additional equipment and we haven’t installed that.

Cranky: But you could use it for the rest of the flight that isn’t over US airspace?

Patrick: Well, we could for part of it, but it doesn’t work above 82 degrees latitude, over the poles where some of our US flights go. We would like to be able to use it to and from flights from America but there has been talk that it may be prohibited, but we’ll resist that.

Patrick: One thing that’s being missed here is why has Emirates done this. We’ve had phones on the seatbacks and they have been used over the years. We see sometimes 40 to 50 phone calls on a flight to New York and never a single complaint. What this is about is more convenience. Passengers know the numbers, they can get billed to their phone and it might be cheaper than using the seatback phone. It’s about freedom. They have the freedom to choose more things. Some people will speak on the phone and speak loudly, but they’ll do that today on a seatback phone.


Cranky: Do you think this will work on flights anywhere on any airline or do you think it’s success is specific to Emirates which flies longer haul flights to countries that may have more expensive calling agreements?

Patrick: I think over time it’s bound to come down in price. Even if it stays at the same price, it’s deflationary. That’s given us tremendous freedom. I think this will work on any flight. People don’t just speak on their phones; they text, they email, they download applications on their iPhone, etc. This is all about allowing people to live normally when they’re traveling anywhere.

One of the most important things is if you’re traveling in an emergency – maybe you’re traveling with someone who is not very well – you’re on a 7 hour flight and you’re stressing about that. Having the freedom to diffuse the situation and calm you down is very important. It’s almost a human right. You should be able to communicate.

Cranky: Wait, did you say you can download applications? Do you have internet access via phones now or is it just voice and text?

Patrick: At the moment, it’s SMS and voice. We need to upgrade some of the other avionics on the aircraft, and very soon we’ll be offering GPRS data. I have GPRS data on my BlackBerry, and I can surf the internet. I can’t watch YouTube, but it keeps me in touch. I know what’s going on in the world. We’ll have that working on some planes within a year. Whether or not you can download an app, I’m not really sure.

You should be connected at the airport, you should be getting wi-fi for free, like airlines like JetBlue give. This is what it’s all about. In the future, people will be 100% connected 20 years from now. This is just about what happens in between.


Cranky: So what about onboard internet. Are you looking at putting a system onboard?

Patrick: There are a number of solutions out there. In terrestrial America, you have the GoGo product which has been well received. But you need to have a lot on the ground and that’s not possible over water or probably in Europe. We want them to have free, or very cheap, we want them to have free internet. It has to be easy to use. You don’t have to swipe credit cards and all that stuff. I don’t think travelers are prepared to pay $24 for a two hour session. We’ve done things like free wi-fi in lounges worldwide. People say, “you could make money, you could charge with this,” but that rubs us the wrong way. This is a service.


Cranky: Back to onboard mobile, let’s talk details of how this works. Do you or does Aeromobile (the mobile provider onboard) charge a fee for use or is it just what the networks charge?

Patrick: The way it works – it’s just like another country. Aeromobile has roaming agreements with about 150 operators worldwide – there are 900 total – and that determines how much the phone company is charged. The phone company can charge the customer whatever they want. We know one phone company that’s charging less than they’re paying and another that’s charging a 300% markup. Check with your operator. If you get ripped off, you’re likely to change service providers. Emirates are not in this. We will not make profit out of this. This is a service and we are not interested in making a profit out of it.

Cranky: So then you get one bill from your mobile phone provider at the end. But do you know if Aeromobile has agreements with US carriers?

Patrick: I don’t believe they have agreements with the major US carriers. [Further research found that no US carriers currently have an agreement with Aeromobile. I understand that Aeromobile simply isn’t prioritizing US carriers because this doesn’t operate on US flights, but they will get there eventually. Apparently, there is some demand. More than 400 US carrier subscribers tried to turn on their phone last month.]

Cranky: Great, thanks for taking the time to chat, Patrick.

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