Lufthansa readies to offer mobile phone connectivity; could decide plan for short/medium-haul fleet before year-end

Lufthansa will soon bring inflight mobile phone capability to passengers, after receiving certification for AeroMobile’s “eXPhone” GSM connectivity system for an aircraft type, the APEX editor’s blog can exclusively reveal.

The German carrier says it has started “testing the performance” of the eXPhone system in-flight. AeroMobile is majority owned by Panasonic Avionics, which has been reigniting inflight Wi-Fi on Lufthansa’s long-haul fleet.

A total 71 Lufthansa aircraft now offer the Internet service, which is branded as FlyNet by the airline. However, rollout of eXPhone on Lufthansa has been slower than expected due in part to the fact that in Europe “there is lack of manpower at EASA to review aircraft modification projects”, says Panasonic Avionics VP of global communications David Bruner.

“We’re somewhat a victim of our own success. We have so many projects; these are just lining up on their desks and they’re going one-by-one. So there is a bottleneck because there is a lot of demand,” he says.

He also confirms that Lufthansa has switched on eXPhone and is in the process of verifying performance.

From a marketing standpoint, it’s understandable that Lufthansa has not started widely marketing the fact that eXPhone is present on board an aircraft; once an inflight connectivity service is advertised, passengers expect to be able to access the service on their flights. Lufthansa previously said that passengers would be able to use inflight GSM for text and data use, but not voice. The carrier already tells passengers not to use FlyNet for VoIP services.

Lufthansa is a former customer of Boeing’s Connexion Internet service, a Ku-band satellite-supported service that ceased operating at the end of 2006. Some 65 aircraft are equipped with Connexion’s Melco Ku antenna; these are again supporting FlyNet. A further six Lufthansa aircraft are carrying Panasonic antennas (manufactured by EMS/Honeywell).

Is there a difference in system performance between the two antennas? Lufthansa says it is “still evaluating results but so far do not see any significant difference”.

Panasonic’s Bruner says the Melco antennas work particularly well over the equator. “They will get equivalent performance to the Panasonic two-panel antenna; there are no other antennas around that do that, so from that standpoint they offer equivalent performance.” Elsewhere, he says, the Panasonic antenna performs better.

Passenger take-up of the service also continues to rise. “With the growing fleet we see constantly higher take-up rates,” says Lufthansa. “As promised, we started the roll-out of live TV; five aircraft offer the service but this number is growing.”

Lufthansa has been studying connectivity for its short- and medium-haul fleets in a bid to ultimately offer fleet-wide connectivity to passengers. The carrier reveals that it is “evaluating the possibilities and will try to reach a decision by the end of this year”.



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