Tencent’s social media platform WeChat has become a ubiquitous part of most people’s lives in China, numbering almost a billion subscribers – with users looking at the app for hours per day to help organise their social and business lives. However, there has been one area where Pony Ma’s popular service has been unavailable: in the skies above China.
However, that changed last week when Hainan Airlines got permission from regulators to let passengers use their smartphones and tablets to go online via an onboard WiFi service. Prior to this Chinese airlines required smartphones to be switched off during flights owing to air safety concerns. Now other major carriers including Air China, China Eastern and China Southern have followed Hainan’s Airlines’ lead (the latter launched the service last Wednesday on an evening flight between Haikou and Beijing).
A reporter from the Hong Kong Economic Times later tried using the WiFi service on a China Eastern flight, and described the speeds as disappointing. A passenger that the journalist interviewed said he’d had trouble accessing the broader web or sending email but had been able to send text and pictures via his WeChat account.
National Business Daily notes that China Eastern already has 74 planes equipped to use WiFi and says the installation cost works out at about Rmb7 million ($1.1 million) per aircraft. However, the Beijing Youth Daily calculated that if Chinese airlines charge Rmb10 to use it on domestic flights and Rmb100 on longer international routes, the industry’s potential new revenues could amount to Rmb8.4 billion annually.
Around 60 international carriers offer WiFi services already, though charging practices are anything but standard. Only eight offer free WiFi, while it is common among top carriers to charge economy class passengers for its use but offer it to business and first class passengers as a perk.
WiC wonders how Chinese carriers will treat the more sensitive issue of internet access. For instance, will passengers flying beyond China’s borders still be subject to the nation’s famed Great Firewall or will they be able to access blocked sites like Facebook and Google while they are in international airspace?
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