A flight attendant uses a mobile phone while sitting inside an aircraft, China (Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg)

Airlines Say In-Flight WiFi And Voice Services Will Add To Costs

Major airlines, including Air India and Vistara, welcomed the Telecom Commission’s nod for use of WiFi and voice services in-flight, with Civil Aviation Minister Suresh Prabhu saying he will ensure “earliest implementation” of the proposal.

When the decision comes into effect in about three to four months, passengers can use mobile phones for both voice and data services in Indian airspace in domestic and international flights. However, a few in the aviation industry, including a senior-level officer of a low-cost airline, were not enthused, citing the expenditure involved in implementing the technology necessary for enabling in-flight WiFi services.

“We welcome the decision as it will mean more convenience to air travellers. We will study the recommendations in details and in due course determine the economics of offering on domestic and international route,” Vistara, which is gearing up for international operations, said in a statement.

But an official of a leading private carrier, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that providing the facility may not be a viable option given the high cost involved.

He said airlines will have to retrofit the in-flight connectivity equipment on the fuselage and this technology is expensive. The charges may not be recoverable from passengers in short-haul flights, he added, indicating that in-flight WiFi services would be a better option on long-haul routes.

However, the major takeaway from the decision is access to net connectivity and internet access which can be provided once the aircraft is ready for take-off.

Prabhu said he will ensure “earliest implementation” of the proposal as the government remains committed to improving services of air passengers and making their travel delightful and hassle-free.

“Providing passenger amenities have been the endeavour of the Narendra Modi government. We are constantly upgrading our services. This (decision) will go a long way in making sure people will use flying time more productively and efficiently,” the civil aviation minister said in a video message from South Africa.

“This move will also help so many hours not being wasted which would be fruitfully and gainfully,” he added, describing the move as “exciting times ahead in Indian skies”.

Minister of State for Civil Aviation Jayant Sinha wrote on Twitter, “Approval for Voice & Data services in Indian airspace has been granted by the @TRAI. We are a step closer for fliers to access & use mobile services in-flight. Enhancing passenger experience in the aviation ecosystem has always been at the forefront for @MoCA_GoI. @DoT_India.”

According to Amber Dubey, partner and India head of aerospace and defence at global consultancy KPMG, passengers may not be averse to paying Rs 200-300 for a 2-3 hour flight and it could be more for international flights. “Premium and corporate passengers may get the service free,” he told PTI.

In 12-24 months, the WiFi service may become completely free like it is in hotels, Dubey said. For airlines, it may provide alternate revenue opportunity to airlines through advertisements and fee from online transactions.

“Overall, it’s a great move albeit a bit late,” he added.

Dubey, however, felt airlines would find it difficult to ground the aircraft for retrofitting with necessary equipment. This may be easier to implement through new aircraft deliveries.

The Telecom Commission’s approval is a win-win situation both for the airline and the travellers in general and we welcome it, said an Air India spokesperson, stating that they are analysing the announcement made in detail before commenting further on the issue. Both IndiGo and SpiceJet said they are also studying the matter in detail before making any comments.