Great for public relations? Lufthansa mobile takes off

Plane
Image (C)  Kuster & Wildhaber Photography
Given last year news broke that the European Commission had approved the use of 3G and 4G mobile devices on planes, it’s not surprising that papers have been running successive stories on the subject of mid-air connectivity. And today seems to be no different, with Germany’s biggest airline expanding its already established in-flight communications service.
Trials for AeroMobile began in 2004, and the first commercial flight (Emirates) used the system in 2008 to offer GSM and Wi-Fi data on an Airbus. By creating a self-contained wireless hub in the cabin, the service allows passengers to tap into any partner mobile phone provider worldwide, giving access to the wonders of their device during the journey, all charged at a roaming price.
Lufthansa recently joined the trend, with eight of its planes travelling between Munich and Frankfurt to North America and the Middle East fitted with AeroMobile kit, and the entire long haul fleet soon to follow. Airlines clearly see a public relations benefit in pushing the envelope of mid-flight mobile use, with Virgin Atlantic, British Airways, Malaysia Airlines and Etihad amongst the heavyweights currently signed up to one service or another, and trumpeting their deals no end.
But the public seems to be more sceptical when it comes to this emerging ‘revolution’. Needless to say, people are worried about the implications of climbing aboard a transcontinental aircraft to find they’re trapped with that guy who won’t stop ranting on his phone. An image that would send a shiver down even the most tolerant traveller’s spine, despite the widespread reservations of the 23 airlines already using AeroMobile or OnAir- the other major provider of telecomms services for planes- only four have a ban on voice calls for the comfort of passengers (albeit almost all restrict calls at night).
Thankfully, though, according to Ian Dawkins, CEO of OnAir, less than 10% of the 400,000 instances wherein the service is used are for voice calls. No doubt partly due to the phenomenal charges such a call would incur, nevertheless it’s difficult to ignore the fact much sentiment on the issue has been negative when it comes to making calls. As such the emphasis Lufthansa has placed on the fact passengers will not be able to phone a friend, limiting them to emails, texts and web data, is more than understandable, and a shrewd move when it comes to public relations.
By assessing the landscape as it is the brand has ensured it listened to what passengers were saying. In the U.S. the Federal Communications Commission is considering allowing the use of mobile phones on U.S. flights too, and The Huffington Post recently reported the resulting Twitter furore, largely inspired by nightmare visions of blabbermouths in the next seat. So, although there are clear benefits of being able to quickly check in with the office whilst you’re somewhere in the atmosphere it seems surprising so many major airlines aren’t picking up on what seems to be a common opinion amongst frequent flyers- connectivity is a great thing, conversations that last from New York to London less so.