Last November, the Federal Communications Commission proposed new rules that would allow airlines to equip their fleets with the equipment necessary for customers to use their cell phones' data and voice capabilities while in the air.
A month earlier, the general flying public cheered as the FCC announced that passengers would no longer be required to power down during taxiing, takeoff and landing, but this particular proposed change received a much different response. The call for public comment, which ended on May 16, was dominated by resistance from this same public.
While this proposed rule change mostly deals with the technological reasons behind the ban and will likely pass through the FCC, it will remain up to the airlines to install and enable the technology. I'd like to suggest that, despite seemingly overwhelming resistance by their customers, airlines should do just that - for their own good and the good of their passengers.
Safety versus Money
In terms of safety, the issue is a no-brainer at this point. As Boeing, one of the largest commercial aircraft manufacturers in the world notes in its comment supporting the rule change, "in-flight wireless service is a mature technology already in wide deployment throughout the world." In fact, cell phone use has been allowed on many European flights since 2008, and while many of the public comments received by the FCC focus on issues like disruptive use and "air rage", the experience of European airlines has shown little of either.
When it comes down to it, the big issue here is money.
I spoke with one major European airline about in-flight cell service and they explained that the system needed to protect the aircraft as well as provide service about 10,000 feet was expensive, to say the least. So why should airlines, which have been in a bit of financial turmoil in recent years, eat the costs and foot the bill?
The answer is simple: a happy customer is a repeat customer.
At Sparkcentral, we have some experience dealing with airlines and their occasionally unhappy customers. Our real-time customer service platform, which helps brands deal with the constant deluge of Tweets, Facebook messages and more, has been employed by eight global airlines, including Delta Air Lines, Virgin Australia, SWISS International Air Lines, Alaska Air and Brussels Airlines. More and more, airlines are turning to Twitter to handle dissatisfied customers and for good reason - it's a better, more efficient and more cost effective use of their time and resources.
Real-Time Customer Service = Happier Customers
So, back to the issue at hand—why should airlines pay to make sure their customers can use their cell phones in the air?
Because a customer with a complaint is going to complain, and why not let that complaint reach your ears while you can still do something about it, rather than later? The more real-time the service, the more you can do to respond to a complaint and keep your customers content. And as we've seen, airlines have had their fare share of social media crises. When an airline is able to respond to complaints in real-time, it may defuse a situation before it becomes yet another viral video.
And as for you, the passenger, in-flight cell service and Internet can mean a more immediate and useful way of communicating with not only the in-flight staff, but the airline itself. You might not want to push that button and get your flight attendant to come by to complain about your noisy neighbor directly, but what if you could connect with the airline directly and they could reach the in-flight crew directly? Or perhaps you have an issue you can't get taken care of for some reason by in-flight crew? Maybe you want to know about connecting flights or you need to change your plans mid-air. The airline's team on the ground might be better equipped to help and handle the problem while it's happening rather than later.
The use cases are endless and favor a better experience for both the airlines and its customers alike. Offering in-flight cell service will give the majority of passengers a way to talk about you, in real-time, and as long as you're listening, it will be better for everyone involved.
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