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

Across the Aisle Interviews, Emirates

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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17 comments on “Talking to Emirates About Onboard Mobile Phone Use (Across the Aisle Interview)

  1. Cranky –

    I admit to skimming thru the interview but I was looking for any comments on the cost comparison between personal cell phones and the phone service already on board. Did Emirates have stats on the utilization of their onboard phones before onboard mobile was offered?

    I’d agree it’s a lot of journalistic hype along with marketing to a captive onboard audience. At the same time, some self-absorbed master of the universe giving orders thru his cell phone from on high (35,000 feet in this case) can easily be added to the list of gripes about quiet and privacy on board.

    I rarely ever saw anyone using the airphone so maybe that statistic will indicate how pervasive onboard cell phones will really be. Thanks.

  2. In the interview, he did mention that they see 40 to 50 calls on their seatback phones on an average flight to New York, so they do see more seatback calls than I would have expected. It sounds like the biggest benefit of onboard mobile is that you can text message. Oh, and the billing is far more simple – you don’t need to swipe a credit card – you just make the call and it shows up on your bill.

    It’s true that some jackass yapping on his cell phone for an hour would be awful, but as he said, there are limiters built-in. One is the high cost. Most people aren’t going to spend that much money unless they need to make the call. But if someone really wanted to make that call, they could do it on the seatback phone now. I think it’s important to actually keep the prices relatively high to discourage frequent use.

    Before widespread cell phones, people used to use the seatback phones domestically more often. But once you had the ability to talk on your cell phone up until the door closed and again when you were taxiing in, the need for the phones decreased and now they’re gone. So if the price is higher on the plane, then I imagine we would see limited use of the product.

  3. I’ve never heard about a limit to how many cell calls could be made at one time. That makes a big difference on what people think about cell phone use on a plane. I too thought there would be a lot of people making calls and since most people YELL into their cell phone it would be annoying to sit next to a chatter box for a couple of hours.

    From taking a train to/from work for years, I can say not that many people make phone calls on the above ground sections of the track, and only a few are annoying. But like the man said, a lot of people have on the head phones watching a movie or listen to music. That with the normal noise of a plane in flight, would you really hear much of a persons call? If someone wanted to make a call just put on head phones and not listen.

    If there is a limit to how many calls can be made at once, then the odds of you sitting next to someone or two people each using a cell phone to make a call is very slim.

    I used one of those seat phones once to ask someone to pick me up when I came home early once. It was a fast call since I knew the more I stayed on the line the higher the cost. I took Super Shuttle home by the way, so that was a wasted call……lol

  4. Why is there so much fuss about loudmouths on phones on planes? I mean I don’t want to sit next to someone talking loudly on a phone on a plane but I also don’t want to experience it on a train, bus or even waiting in line in the street. As the guy from emirates says many carriers have had hard phones for years and i’ve never had a problem with someone being too loud on one of those.

  5. David SFeastbay – Even more interesting is that they don’t seem to need the cap. Patrick said that they’ve never had more than 3 calls at one time, but even that has only happened on rare occasion.

  6. The 3 calls at once thing will change. It’s a novelty now. Once it’s common, more people will use it – you’ll be able to plan meetings for the flight, instead of working around that “blackout” period.

    On a Southwest flight from OAK to LAS, you’d have way more than 3 people wanting to use their phones at a time.

    And a slim chance is still a chance. I don’t want to be in business class on a long flight, listening to anyone on the phone.

  7. I tend to agree with Neil S. It is a pricey novelty at the moment. Prices always come down with utility services. And “urgent” matters equaly dilute from “Honey, we just got diverted” to “Babe, don’t forget to pick up a gallon of milk on your way home.”

    The trigger is that with AirPhones, very few inbound calls to the plane were made. With the cell phone? It’s no longer “He’s on the plane” for those people who otherwise always keep their phones on.

    Buy stock in noise-cancelling headphone retailers.

  8. Are you guys all crazy?! I still am completely against talking on the plane. Basically the major arguments here that make this reasonable are 1.) costs are too high, 2.) 5 call limit, and 3.) Nobody uses it anyway even though it’s available. These arguments are all bunk.

    1.) Cost. BS. Maybe for some of the people posting on this forum it’s a no-go. What about people who always fly in paid J or F, or who work in industries that aren’t cost sensitive for things like mobile phones, where it’s required as a part of business to talk on the phone in 30-40 countries a year and use unlimited data wherever you go? And compare the cost of an F ticket, or something like R class on SQ…these are not people who are going to give a huge hoot about an extra $20, $50, or $100 on their phone bill. Even J class to JFK from Asia runs over $10USD sometimes. My point is, cost probably won’t make a difference for a number of passengers. My own mobile bill can run into the thousands every month, and I guarantee if I’m on Emirates with this service I probably will end up talking…and using it. It’s not that I want to, but if your colleagues or clients even know it’s available then you de facto have no choice. While everyone strives to keep costs down, if you can get business that will generate hundreds of thousands or millions in revenues an extra few hundred bucks is not a deterrent. And a lot of the people flying in J and F (and Y, for that matter) are doing exactly that.

    2.) 5 call limit, one word: Technology. Technology improves over time. The limit will increase.

    3.) Nobody has done more than 3 calls at once: Novelty. Once it gets more widespread – and more importantly, once people on the ground know the people in the air have access – this will go up.

    Yesterday I flew back on a long-haul flight from the US to Asia, I was in F. I slept 10 hours, landed in the morning and then worked a 16 hour day. It was great because I had no jetlag. I can imagine now if even one or two of the eight other passengers in the nose of the 747 were jabbering away on their phone while I was trying to sleep…it would not have been well-received. Yet it would’ve been very feasible – we took off at 1am SF time, which was 4pm HK/China time. So there was about a 8 hour window after we took-off when things were still going on at our destination, business was being conducted, and we all very-well could’ve been on the phone.

    So while I can agree that US domestic flights, intra-Europe flights, Gulf flights etc….an hour here, a few hours there, maybe even 4-5 hours…should probably have this service, for long-hauls, when often everyone has different sleeping schedules anyway, I think it’s a terrible idea.

  9. QRC –

    In my last post I agreed with Neil S and I also agree with you. Riding on an plane is not the same as standing in Times Square yet it could easily turn in to that kind of environment with every self-absorbed rainmaker closing deals and every worried road warrior checking in at home to make sure the kids they’re sacrificing time away from are at least not in jail.

    From $1500 1st generation DVD players to $99 or less you are correct. Technology will eventually make cell time on an airplane to be no more than whatever plan most people have today.

    I quote Michael Crichton: “Just because you can do a thing doesn’t always mean that you should.”

    Leave the cell phones off, just as you would in a theater, and remember the (Optimistic) joy that air travel once brought in taking you away from the troubles of the world for at least the duration of the flight.

    Or maybe the airlines should come up with a quiet zone where no cells are allowed.

  10. Some other questions/concerns:

    I’ve got a shouter two doors away from my office. When he’s not outside smoking he’s on his blue-tooth with the door open almost eight hours a day conference calling. And he’s temperamental. And he’s big.

    I can see the speaking volume being raised just to be heard over the ambient aircraft noise and the random onboard announcement. Like so many animated people with naturally loud voices it will only get louder when they get even more irrascible during a marathon phone call.


  11. Well the good news is that we can watch Emirates as a test case here. If once their fleet is fully outfitted, the phone calls spike, then it’s a problem. I’m not as convinced how big of an issue it will be on them. If the biggest usage happens in business and first, then you’re pretty far away from the next passenger, at least on their newer seat configurations. With your noise-canceling headsets on, it’s not going to be that noticeable, I’d bet. But we can just watch and see how this plays out.

  12. Cranky –

    Where are you on Ryanair’s latest move, guy?

    100% online check-in with a 10 Pound fee for printing the boarding pass?

    I’ll simply say they’ll never see my business and leave it at that.

  13. Optimist – Well, any “fee” that you can’t avoid seems that it shouldn’t be a fee to me. I have to think the EU will not be happy with this one.

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