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China Eastern reaches for sky with expanded Wi-Fi service

[CLI Code] CLI.N.16760613(EN) 

As the first Chinese carrier to offer in-flight internet, China Eastern Airlines Corp Ltd is poised to introduce the service in its wide-bodied aircraft next year once they get the nod from aviation authorities, a senior manager from the Shanghai-based carrier said.
"Since launching the commercial test on in-flight Wi-Fi last November, China Eastern Airlines has brought Wi-Fi connectivity to 43 aircraft, and the figure is expected to reach 54 by this year's end," said Zhang Chi, deputy director of China Eastern Airlines' transformation office.
According to Zhang, more than 4,000 passengers of China Eastern have used the free Wi-Fi service since September, and by November, the carrier expanded its onboard Wi-Fi service from 2,500 flights to 3,000 per month.
China Eastern has been taking the lead in in-flight Wi-Fi development in recent years, and the company received approval from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology to use AsiaSat-6 satellite for Wi-Fi services on 21 airplanes from May, 2015.
Since November 2015, China Eastern has launched a trial run for the service, which allows passengers to apply to use the service either through reservations on its application and official website ahead of, or after, boarding.
"First class, business class, golden and platinum card holders, as well as the younger generation are the core customers using the in-flight Wi-Fi service," Zhang said.
After nearly one year of testing, Zhang said the in-flight Wi-Fi service is ready for operation as problems have fallen from 2 to 3 percent to 0.1 percent.
Zhang is optimistic that the Wi-Fi service will become commercialized next year as in-flight Wi-Fi will be available in all its wide-by mid-2017. China Eastern is projected to expand its wide-body fleet to more than 110 by 2020.
A detailed plan for onboard Wi-Fi costs is still under discussion, but Zhang revealed that China Eastern may raise special rates compared to international counterparts.
"As a value-added service, in-flight Wi-Fi is designed to retain high-end business passengers who believe internet connections are necessary," said Li Lei, an industrial analyst from Minzu Securities Co Ltd.
A growing number of major international airlines have added such services in their long haul international flights, to meet rising demand for internet connectivity especially for business travelers.
"The in-flight Wi-Fi service will offer an edge for the carrier in competing with its rivals in domestic routes, and be attractive to its high-end passengers as well as young travelers," said Zhang.
"The Wi-Fi using habits monitored by us through the trial period will help decide the rates. For example, text messages on social media such as WeChat will be free of charge, but passengers have to pay if they want to send pictures or video chat; meanwhile, browsing financial news will be free, but transaction fees may be collected by the carrier if stock deals are done," said Zhang.
According to Zhang, research reveals that both Chinese and foreign passengers use social media apps the most, but financial information is the second most important for the Chinese.
China Eastern is a pioneer in providing in-flight Wi-Fi service in the China aviation market. In July, 2014, the carrier had its first aircraft equipped with on board Wi-Fi services after $200,000 to $300,000 on prefabrication was spent on aircraft to serve flights between Beijing and Shanghai.
The in-flight Wi-Fi also provides direct ground support to the cabin crew in emergency conditions such as first aid and special conditions, and allows for video conferences, diagnosis, and information on various transportation options, according to Zhang.
Compared to their global counterparts, Chinese airlines are latecomers in offering in-flight Wi-Fi services. But Zhang is extremely optimistic.
"We will catch up soon, just like what China is doing in internet and mobile internet areas."
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