Airlines market in-flight WiFi as a passenger benefit — leisure travellers are able to stream films while business travellers can remain connected.
When expectations of what constituted the workplace changed from a specific workplace location to any WiFi hotspot, the flight itself became one of the last places where a business traveller could not, or would not be expected to, be connected. But the arrival of in-air WiFi changed that. And the US Department of Transportation's proposal late last week to allow in-air mobile calls might have big ramifications.
The US will not be the first major aviation market to give in-flight mobile calls a green light — the EU did this in 2014 — but the American market is big, important for business and any initiative from one of the big three network carriers is inevitably quickly adopted by the other two.
The DOT has proposed that US flights be able to allow in-flight mobile calls if they so choose so long as they notify those considering booking the flight that this is the case.
It is a proposal that looks technically overdue but commercially too early, given the ostensible lack of demand.
Of the more than 1,700 comments submitted during the consultation period 96% favoured a ban on voice calls and 2% wanted a ban except for emergencies. Only 2% said that airlines should be free to set their own policies. The sample is not representative but it is worth noting.
The simple explanation is probably that while carriers feel this is another 'benefit' they could offer their customers, most of their customers feel that it is a move that will reduce the quality of their in-flight experience. On-board mobile is probably viewed much like many view alcohol — a perceived benefit that in fact has the potential of making the in-flight experience very unpleasant for those who do not wholeheartedly participate.
Air rage is becoming a serious issue. But connectivity is also something that many consumers demand. WiFi used to be challenging for long-haul flights because of the absence of towers in oceans or seas on flight routes but was easier to provide on flights that travelled over land. WiFi has become more and more available on flights.
Calls were treated differently because of potential interference with flight systems but the argument is that this thinking is obsolete because aircraft now have their own effective cell towers so interference is no longer an issue. More importantly, more and more calls are being made via internet services such as WhatsApp or Skype so passengers on flights offering WiFi can already make calls.
The question is whether what technological advances allow is actually what consumers want.
Access to connectivity is always held-up as something travellers need. But in our increasingly traveller centric programmes, it's worth asking if this is what business travellers actually want.