Patrick Brannelly

Disclosure: Emirates is a client of Spafax, Sparksheet’s publisher.

Brannelly is Vice President, Passenger Communications and Visual Services, for the Dubai-based airline.

Your customers have a strong relationship with social media such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. What are you going to do to facilitate those relationships in flight?

Social networking is becoming more important although it is clearly still niche at the moment. Some say that it is unlikely to ever become mainstream with the frequent business traveler, but it is probably too early to come to that conclusion.  Some social networking solutions allow groups to have serious conversations in a more efficient way than using email – resulting in five replies to one email, which are time-consuming and hard to assimilate.  Emirates has invested in upgrading our aircraft to allow passengers to use their own mobile phones or PDAs, and this will obviously be the channel through which the bulk of passengers will communicate. We could easily add Facebook or Twitter to the seatback software but the current user audience is more likely to have a gadget in their pocket they’d prefer to use.

How have the Web and social media inspired the Emirates customer experience with in-flight entertainment (IFE)?

All industries have to be influenced by what is going on in the world vis-à-vis the web – that’s why we have connected cars, hotels and airlines. The evolution of seatback systems from being simple ‘entertainment’ systems to the current connected platform offering passengers live communications and information has clearly been influenced by the Internet evolution. Initially we offered SMS and email chat, then live news headlines throughout the flight. Any product manager who doesn’t engage with the world of his customers is underperforming, and demonstrates a worrying lack of curiosity. I am worried how few service companies in this industry don’t seem to understand what’s going on.

What impact will the advent of inflight broadband have on the customer experience with IFE in general—and on Emirates specifically?

Universal inflight broadband is not a done deal in terms of technical or economic viability, although clearly it is extremely attractive. The airline industry operates on very small margins and passengers have a low tendency to pay for services in flight. It’s extremely complex to achieve, but passengers don’t truly appreciate that and expect it to be very affordable.  Sure, some will pay $20, but will that be enough to sustain this incredibly expensive network?  Emirates is keen to offer broadband, but we want it to be affordable, globally available, and  profitable for the supplier.

Emirates has recently led the development and adoption of onboard mobile telephone use. How have your customers responded to this?


Our seatback telephone service has always been a success, contrary to comments from other airlines and industry commentators. On some flights we see over 40 or 50 phone calls, especially on longer flight segments. We’ve seen good traffic, partially because we’ve marketed it well but also because we’ve priced it competitively and not sought an operating profit from what we see as a service to passengers. The move to allowing passengers to use their own phones was obvious and with over 100 flights a day offering the service, we’ve not seen any of the nightmare scenarios. Usage growth is huge month to month, and feedback to cabin crew has been overwhelmingly positive. The attitude from passengers has been, “why wasn’t this done sooner?”

How does your IFE fit into your overall product spectrum and Emirates “attitude”?

The airline industry is a very tough business. There can sometimes be 50 airlines to choose from between two points and while some choose on price, some on product, some on schedule, some on loyalty programmes (etc. etc.), most choose based on a mix of these. IFE is clearly part of that. But it’s no good having great IFE and bad food, service, or crew – we need to get everything right. Not just right – we need to wow our passengers, to exceed their expectations so next time they choose us outright, first time.  Everything we do after the ticket sale, is really about generating loyalty for the next ticket purchase.

Is there any way for the customer to take the Emirates IFE experience home with them?

Watch this space!  I loved receiving an email from a yacht builder, saying his client wanted Emirates ICE [the airline’s award-winning inflight entertainment system] onboard the super-yacht he was building.  I’m also personally proud of our Magnum Opus project, which is a serious audio documentary of the last 600 years of Classical music.

Have you seen any change in audience content preferences over the past few years?

Today, customers expect more of almost everything, including international content that is more relevant to them—not just US or UK comedy and movies. Passengers who like classical music expect to have more than one two-hour repeating program to choose from. I believe they also expect to find something that is new to them.

Do you see a role for advertising in the IFE experience?

Inflight advertising helps meet the high cost of providing the inflight entertainment, but it is unlikely to ever pay for it all.  The quantity of advertising needs to be monitored so it does not impact detrimentally on the passenger experience, but done well it can actually create a more natural, familiar, live TV feel to the inflight experience.

What are your thoughts on the future of inflight magazines? Will they be around in 10 years time?

Yes – but they’ll evolve or die.  I read that there are over 250,000 magazines being published in the US alone – that is not sustainable. I don’t like the fact that when advertising revenues are strong you see so many new magazine titles being created to soak up that money. Inflight magazines were invented in an era when there was nothing to do on a flight. These days there are so many other distractions on full service airlines that I wonder if they’d be invented today. They need to improve to survive.