Sunday, December 11, 2016

Facebook at 30,000 Feet? Not Above India: Air travel surges, but in-flight internet still won’t fly with New Delhi; passengers grumble



The Wall Street Journal
By NEWLEY PURNELL in New Delhi and  GAURAV RAGHUVANSHI in Singapore
Dec. 11, 2016 6:27 a.m. ET


As more airlines roll out in-flight internet and regulators loosen rules governing wireless devices on planes, one country is a holdout in continuing to prohibit passengers from using Wi-Fi on board: India.

Home to the fastest-growing major air-travel market and a galloping economy, India hasn’t consented to the use of onboard Wi-Fi in its airspace due to security concerns.

Carriers including Emirates Airline, Jet Airways (India) Ltd. and Indian associates of Singapore Airlines and Malaysia’s AirAsia Bhd. say they are eager to offer Wi-Fi if only the government would allow it. Some have been lobbying New Delhi to change the law, according to aviation and tech industry executives.

Some Indian officials have indicated recently that they wish to lift the ban, and suggested such a move isn’t far off, but a deal has yet to materialize.

For travelers, the lack of Wi-Fi is an inconvenience as more passengers—and their bosses—come to expect connectivity at 30,000 feet. A global survey of some 7,300 passengers by the International Air Transport Association last year found 36% were willing to pay for in-flight internet.



“For business executives flying for an important meeting or presentation, it’s very painful to be cut off from the team during the flight,” said Amber Dubey, partner and India head of aerospace and defense at KPMG. “The fears about safety and security are a bit overstretched. The technology has been tested thoroughly and approved by international regulators.”

Wi-Fi is now commonplace on U.S. airlines and many carriers elsewhere. Typically, connectivity is provided by companies such as Gogo Inc. and SITA OnAir. Fees vary, but connection speeds are slower than those on the ground.

India’s Wi-Fi ban applies to all flights transiting the country’s vast airspace, not just domestic ones, meaning it affects routes linking East and Southeast Asia with the Middle East and Europe. Singapore Airlines, which flies between the city-state and Indian cities and to destinations farther afield, said its systems switch off internet access when its planes enter Indian airspace.

In August, Civil Aviation Secretary R.N. Choubey said restrictions on Wi-Fi would be lifted in as little as “10 days.” He told local media that authorities wanted to ensure they could track voice and data communications made via onboard Wi-Fi.

But despite calls from the industry, and certifications from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and other regulatory bodies, the ban remains.



It is unclear exactly where the government stands on the issue. A spokesman for Mr. Choubey said the aviation ministry supported changing the law, but that approval was needed from the communications ministry. A spokesman for the communications ministry said it was considering a proposal to change the rules.

The home-affairs ministry, which has responsibility for domestic security, said it hadn’t examined the issue and wouldn’t elaborate on security concerns. Officials at the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, India’s regulator for commercial flights, didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.

One senior executive at a firm providing in-flight connectivity said the home-affairs ministry had been the barrier to lifting the prohibition, and that officials in other agencies were in favor of change. The executive added that India might be the only country other than North Korea to prohibit onboard Wi-Fi. Countries such China and Pakistan allow passengers to use it in their respective airspace.

To be sure, India faces a range of security threats. The country’s military remains in a tense standoff with Pakistan in the disputed Kashmir region, where conflict has flared again this year. Several terror attacks—usually attributed to Islamist groups or Maoist rebels—have occurred in India in recent years.

Some aviation-technology specialists, though, say security concerns over airplane Wi-Fi are spurious.

The systems that provide Wi-Fi and fly an aircraft don’t communicate with each other, said Mark D. Martin, founder of Dubai-based Martin Consulting LLC, an aviation consulting firm. “It is like an earthworm trying to communicate with a buffalo. To create a handshake between the two is nearly impossible,” he said. “National-security reasons are absolutely unfounded.”

Regulatory approval in India “will happen, and we are working on it and we expect a regulatory policy in India is imminent,” said a spokesman for Chicago-based Gogo, which provides in-air connections for more than 2,800 commercial planes across 17 airlines.

Oliver Drennan, general counsel for Geneva-based SITA OnAir, said there is “real interest and momentum” for passenger connectivity in-flight, and that the company has been working with Indian authorities over a long period.

A spokesman for Emirates, which flies numerous routes between its Dubai hub and India, said it was confident that regulatory clarity was near, and that passengers would be able to use Wi-Fi over India “very soon.”

“It is certainly an issue that business travelers in India would like to see addressed,” said Gaurav Sundaram, regional director, India, for the Alexandria, Va.-based Global Business Travel Association.

For now, at least, passengers flying above India can savor the serenity of being out of range of the office.

—Daniel Stacey in New Delhi contributed to this article.

Original article can be found here:   http://www.wsj.com

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