In the biggest development yet for total in-flight connectivity -- encompassing both Wi-Fi service and voice cell-phone roaming capability -- Lufthansa said it is equipping most of its long-haul fleet with a suite of products largely developed by Panasonic Avionics that will allow passengers to use their cell-phones or access the Internet in-flight almost anywhere in the world.
Lufthansa's confusing announcement (maybe it was more comprehensible in German), and an equally confusing one by Panasonic, made for bewildering reading, especially since it was framed as a re-launch of the ill-fated Connexion by Boeing Wi-Fi service (which Lufthansa branded as FlyNet). In 2001, Lufthansa had agreed to be the launch customer for Connexion by Boeing. The Boeing subsidiary eventually signed up other customers, including ANA, Japan Airlines and SAS, but the company went out of business (after losing about $1 billion) in 2006, two years after Lufthansa first began offering it on flights.
Connexion by Boeing died of its own weight, literally and figuratively. The equipment was too heavy to be used on anything other than big long-haul planes; the company was bloated with 600 employees; the timing turned out to be awful, in the travel depression that followed 2001, and well before it had become clear that enough people would pay for such a service to make it viable. Neither the market nor the technology was ready.
The new Lufthansa service -- still branded as FlyNet -- has nothing to do with the long-gone Connexion by Boeing. Instead, the technology is by Panasonic and the cell-phone component of the system is being provided by AeroMobile, which is one of two foreign companies (the other is OnAir) that are leading the current revolution in in-flight Wi-Fi and/or cell-phone development on many foreign airlines.
Stripped of some of its more-windy verbiage, Lufthansa's statement said: "Easy to use, the system will allow passengers to utilize the Internet in-flight as they would at a public hot-spot, with WLAN access, sending emails with attachments or an SMS from a mobile phone and synchronisation of smartphones, like PDAs, iPhones or Blackberrys.
"FlyNet will be available to all passengers in the cabin ... It will be installed in stages, worldwide, on all Lufthansa long-haul routes. Rates will differ, from time-based to flat rate ...
Facts and Figures
5-50 Mbps (in ther aircraft
1 Mbps (outside the aircraft)
WLAN, GSM, GPRS
* Lufthansa long-haul fleet:
* Lufthansa Partner:
Panasonic Avionics Corporation
* Transmission mode:
Satellite-supported broadband system."
Here is Panasonic's statement about the development.
AeroMobile and OnAir are behind the Wi-Fi and/or cell-phone revolution on airlines outside the U.S. An American start-up, Row44, is also trying to make inroads in the international market, though its major customer so far is Southwest Airlines, which does not fly overseas. Southwest has said it will outfit its fleet of 737s with Row44's satellite Wi-Fi system.
AeroMobile's chief executive officer, Bjorn-Taale Sandberg, said today that the Lufthansa initiative will transform the industry. "Major airlines are recognizing the need to keep their passengers connected with broadband and cellular connectivity," he said.
"AeroMobile is unique in providing airlines with flexibility and a future-proofed connectivity vision. We have customer commitments from airlines operating Inmarsat Classic Aero, Swift64, SwiftBroadband and now Ku band. Lufthansa’s commitment to Panasonic’s multi-megabyte Ku band solution, eXConnect, will allow AeroMobile to deliver a much richer user experience, provide more comprehensive value-added cellular services and a growth path to 3G," he said.
AeroMobile was the first company to offer in-flight mobile phone services in full commercial use when it launched with Emirates in March 2008. The system is currently installed on over 50 wide-bodied aircraft across six aircraft types with Emirates and Malaysian Airlines. This figure will rise into three figures in 2010 as AeroMobile's equipment is installed on other long haul flag carriers.
The Lufthansa announcement, which sees AeroMobile's equipment installed through Panasonic's eXPhone system, means AeroMobile now has commitments spanning all wide-bodied aircraft variants including B747 and A380.
Last month, I spoke with Benoit Debains, the chief executive of AeroMobile competitor OnAir. He said that OnAir is negotiating to provide service on super-jumbo A380s before the end of the year, though he wouldn't identify the airline or airlines.
The big question, as world airlines gear up for full connectivity, including cell-phone capability, is the United States, where in-flight Wi-Fi is being eagerly adopted but there remains huge public and political resistance to allowing voice calls in flight.
"I used to say the people who are against voice calls are the people who didn’t try it," Debains said, adding: "We have 10,000 flights (every month). I have been on some of these flights and I have to tell you, it is not an issue as people fear. The average duration of a phone call is about 2 minutes. And because there is already a certain noise level in the cabin, a call is not as noisy as people believe it would be."
He called the opposition in the U.S. "very emotional." He said, "When you talk to [U.S.] airline CEOs or to fleet managers, they give you a very personal opinion -- 'You know, an airplane cabin is the last place where I cannot be reached,' blah-blah-blah. They not even thinking in terms of all those things you can do [with full connectivity] that you do when you are on the ground."
Nevertheless, he said, OnAir is trying to persuade some U.S. carriers to carry its system on international fleets. "We believe that the U.S. market ultimately will open up to this," he insisted, though he said that high costs for outfitting a plane ("three or four times higher" than the $100,000 per aircraft it costs to wire a plane for the AirCell's Gogo-branded Wi-Fi service that many domestic airlines are already installing) makes it more likely that OnAir would be installed, if at all, mostly on new factory-built long-haul aircraft that might be ordered in the future.
There has been strong resistance in the United States to any proposal to allow cell-phone use – or even so-called voice over Internet protocol on airplanes.
Among the strongest opponents are flight attendants, though their main union the Association of Flight Attendants, which is affiliated with the Communications Workers of America union. In a statement, the union said:
"AFA-CWA is urging members of the Senate to ensure that a ban on in-flight cellular telephone usage is included in any Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization legislation that passes out of the Senate. The U.S. House of Representatives has already included such a ban in H.R.915, the House FAA Reauthorization Bill. Cell-phone usage in the cabin would create a new security risk by compromising your ability to maintain order in the cabin and to safely execute an emergency evacuation if necessary."
It isn't clear exactly how a cell phone would impede an aircraft evacuation (safety is always trotted out to oppose anything the flight attendants don't like) -- but it is very clear that the opposition to in-flight voice calls in the U.S. is fierce and possibly politically insurmountable.