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Wi-Fi in the sky: Domestic airlines cold to on-board call, cite high cost

Arindam Majumder & Aneesh Phadnis/New Delhi/ Mumbai 20 Jan 18 | 11:17 PM

Photo: Shutterstock

Domestic airlines are evaluating the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s (Trai) recommendations to allow on board Wi-Fi, but high cost and price sensitivity may deter them from rolling out the service.

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The Indian aviation market, dominated by low-cost carriers, is mostly served by single aisle narrow body planes like Airbus A320 and Boeing 737. The same aircraft are used by airlines like IndiGo and SpiceJet for their overseas operations (Dubai, Colombo, Sharjah) usually within the three to four-hour flying range. At present, only Air India and Jet Airways fly long haul routes to Europe and North America.

“In-flight connectivity is a difficult business case to make for domestic airline operations. The aircraft are smaller, there are less passengers and flying time is not that long," said Stephen Tame, chief advisor (IT) at IndiGo.

Another senior executive of a low-cost carrier ruled out the prospect of providing free in-flight wifi. “Please don’t compare it to other developed markets, this is a very price sensitive market where even full service carriers are now cutting down on amenities and luxury," he said, adding that not many passengers will be willing to pay extra for availing wifi.

However, AirAsiaIndia said it’s “always ready to offer services that will enhance ultimate in-flight customer experience through digital offerings." The airline did not make any specific comment on pricing or the implications of offering voice calls on the flight. Full-service carriers said they would contemplate providing wifi, based on passenger feedback. “The Trai recommendations have just come, we will review it and take a decision. Our widebody aircraft like Boeing 777 and 787 can be retrofitted with equipment. On-board connectivity is not only a source of ancillary revenue for airlines but increases its value in the mind of flyers in long-haul routes," Pankaj Srivastava, commercial director at Air India, said. Air India at present doesn’t provide on-board internet.

Last year, Jet Airways began offering wireless streaming of entertainment on its Boeing 737 planes. Jet has tied up US-based Global Eagle Entertainment and had earlier said it would offer full broadband satellite connectivity upon easing of government regulations. The airline did not respond to Business Standard queries on the subject on Saturday.

For providing internet connectivity, an aircraft requires a retrofit and antenna is mounted on fuselage. Apart from fixed costs, there are other expenditures related to subscription of bandwidth or entertainment. Such factors determine charges airlines levy on passengers.

“More and more corporate flyers see on board wifi as a necessary amenity and are demanding it. So, this might be a necessary business cost, which will vary based on routes, the type of aircraft," said an executive of a private full service carrier. He said it may start with a basic pack for free and later move on to paid data packs. The free basic pack will allow receiving and sending mails and checking WhatsApp.

For instance, Dubai-based Emirates provides 20 MB free data for the first two hours after logging in. Besides that, data packs are charged at $9.99 for 150 MB and $15.99 for 500 MB data. Lufthansa charges passengers anything in the range of ^9 to 17 for on-board internet usage for up to 24 hours.

“We welcome this initiative by the government to permit on-board internet over Indian skies. We are looking forward to help Lufthansa passengers communicate seamlessly across all points of their travel itinerary through FlyNet® services over Indian skies," an airline spokesperson said.

On-board calling

When it comes to allowing in-flight phone calls, airline executives in the country are against it. It may become a safety issue, as passengers may be making calls while the safety instruction by cabin crew is being read out, an Air India executive argued. “Trai has been very liberal in its policy, but I don’t think DGCA will permit it. This may become a safety issue," he said.

Frequent flyers also opposed the idea of in-flight calling as it would make things noisy. “Hopefully the airlines, when they launch in-flight WiFi, will exclude Voice Over Internet Protocol. I will not be comfortable listening to other people’s private conversations. Imagine a lover’s tiff being sorted out on the seat next to you," said Ajay Awtaney, a frequent flyer and writer of travel blog livefromalounge.com. Even airlines and flyers in mature markets like USA have opposed the idea of on-board calling.

Last September US-based airline Delta CEO Ed Bastian, when asked about the prospect of on-board calling, replied,“never in my lifetime."  “Lufthansa FlyNet® system doesn’t support mobile telephone calls. While Lufthansa FlyNet® is extremely fast and can support system Internet telephony (VoIP), services such as Skype are not allowed out of consideration for other passengers," Lufthansa said.

A Singapore Airlines spokesperson said internet voice calls were not blocked by the connectivity system but the airline did not encourage them.

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