Long flights are one of the worst times to be disconnected from the internet. Fortunately, more and more airlines are now offering in-flight Wi-Fi, allowing passengers to check their emails and surf the web while 40,000 feet in the sky.
So, how does in-flight Wi-Fi work? Which airlines offer it? And more importantly, what are the downsides?
How Does In-Flight Wi-Fi Work?
On the last flight you took, you probably noticed your cell phone losing its connection. Regular telephone networking doesn’t work when you reach a certain height. How, then, do airplanes offer an internet connection some 12 kilometers above the earth’s crust? There is a simple answer to this.
Modern planes have antennas allowing them to pick up signals from one of two sources: ground stations or satellites.
The first method uses a series of overlapping ground stations that constantly beam cellular signals into the sky. The aircraft connects to the ground stations using a series of antennas situated in the underside of the aircraft fuselage. The connection forwards to a server and router situated on the aircraft and then broadcasts throughout the cabin.
The major downside to ground station in-flight Wi-Fi is the lack of coverage on any flight that crosses a large expanse of water or mountainous terrain.
The other method uses communication satellites. Communication satellites broadcast directly to antennas situated on the top of the aircraft fuselage. In-flight Wi-Fi using communication satellites offers increased reliability, coverage, and speeds. Unfortunately, an improved service also comes with an increase in cost.
In-flight Wi-Fi using satellites could improve with the rollout of low-orbit satellite-based internet services like Starlink—but more on this in a moment.
A Short Note on Network Speed and Terminology
This article refers to internet speed in megabytes per second (MB/s). According to Speedtest, the average broadband connection in the US had a download speed of 68MB/s and an upload speed of 8.5MB/s.
For most people, the download speed is important as it values how quickly the internet data reaches your machine. However, the upload speed is just as important if you send information to the internet, such as in an online game or uploading files to a CMS.
Types of In-Flight Wi-Fi
There are a few different types of in-flight Wi-Fi, and the type of Wi-Fi determines your expected speeds.
GoGo Air is one of the largest in-flight Wi-Fi providers in the United States. Many U.S. airlines used GoGo Air’s ATG4 (Air-to-Ground 4).
ATG4 was a major step for in-flight Wi-Fi systems, boosting the number of antennas on each aircraft and the number of ATG towers across the continental U.S., Canada, and Alaska. The system and network upgrade meant each aircraft could make use of 10MB/s (It was previously just 0.38MB/s.)
Yes, that’s an entire aircraft using 10MB/s. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that a handful of passengers can saturate that bandwidth, let alone 300 passengers feverishly simultaneously attempting to stream Netflix.
Ku-Band In-Flight Wi-Fi
Ku-band satellite Wi-Fi uses a series of relay satellites to cover a greater area, covering the 11.7-14.5GHz frequency band. For context, your home Wi-Fi router uses 2.4GHz and 5GHz (and maybe 6GHz if you’re using a brand-new router).
GoGo Air’s 2Ku technology satellite relay (via SES and Intelsat) uses the Ku band portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. 2Ku uses two Ku-band antennas to provide separate download and upload connections.
Now, the Ku-band antennas provide a theoretical peak download of between 40 and 100Mbps, depending on the satellite connection. In-flight Wi-Fi speed tests show the actual figure to be lower, although with much better upload speeds than ATG4. In addition, the antennas are smaller than existing options, decreasing drag, turbulence, and fuel burn associated with in-flight Wi-Fi antennas.
2Ku represented a significant leap forward for in-flight Wi-Fi connectivity. However, it is difficult for airlines to change their in-flight Wi-Fi provider. Unlike your home connection, an airline must be retrofitted with the correct antennas and routers for the specific service, and these changes don’t come cheap.
Ka-Band, LEO Satellites, and Starlink In-Flight Wi-Fi
Ka-band covers the radio frequency between 26.5-40GHz and is often used alongside Ku-band services to provide an entire package. In the early days of in-flight Wi-Fi, both Ku and Ka-band satellite services were somewhat impractical because global low-earth orbit (LEO) and geostationary orbit satellite coverage simply wasn’t there.
However, satellite Wi-Fi coverage has significantly increased in recent years, with satellite internet companies like OneWeb, Viasat, Inmarsat, Starlink, and others pushing the envelope and delivering advanced in-flight Wi-Fi services to airlines.
For example, British firm OneWeb has partnered with Panasonic Avionics to bring its ultrafast satellite Wi-Fi service to Panasonic Avionics 70 or so airline customers. While many aircraft will require retrofitting to work with the tech, it could boost in-flight Wi-Fi to 200Mbps per plane, with around 32Mbps upload speeds. The wider-satellite coverage should also result in fewer in-flight Wi-Fi dropouts, too.
As you might expect, SpaceX’s Starlink satellite Wi-Fi service isn’t far from the action. Starlink Aviation is set for launch in 2023, with SpaceX stating that its service will deliver up to 300Mbps per plane, with a super-fast latency of 20ms. Given Starlink’s already decent satellite coverage and its plans to launch thousands more over the coming years, it’s highly likely we’ll see Starlink Aviation become one of the world’s leading in-flight Wi-Fi services.
The Downsides of In-Flight Wi-Fi
The main Achilles heel of in-flight Wi-Fi is connectivity. More airlines than ever offer some form of in-flight Wi-Fi connection, but whether it is worth using is another question.
There are a few things for you to consider before buying in-flight Wi-Fi credits for your upcoming trip.
1. In-Flight Wi-Fi Isn’t Cheap
Even though coverage is better than ever, the price of in-flight Wi-Fi remains high. Restrictions on in-flight data use are easing as in-flight connectivity and network capacity increase, but you will still pay over the odds for a half-decent connection.
In 2016, travel blogger Ben Schlappig snapped possibly one of the worst in-flight Wi-Fi offerings of all time. Schlappig was flying business class on an Iberia A340 from New York to Madrid, which had OnAir Wi-Fi.
The cheapest Wi-Fi package offered 4MB for around $5. Each additional 100KB costs $0.17. Yes, you read that right: kilobytes.
|Device Type||Smartphone or Tablet||iPad|
Given the average web page size is now around 2-3MB, you’re not going to be doing much of anything. However, that experience was several years back now. In-flight Wi-Fi services and costs are better, depending on the airline.
For example, on Emirates, at the time of writing, there are two main services. In-flight Wi-Fi costs between $9.99-19.99, depending on the length of the flight, or you can opt for the cheaper Unlimited Chat service for between $2.99-5.99, but this only enables WhatsApp, iMessage, and so on.
AirFrance offers three different in-flight Wi-Fi options: Message Pass, Surf Pass, and Stream Pass. The Surf Pass is designed for surfing the web and collecting emails, and its cost varies depending on the length of your flight, while the Stream Pass costs 30 euros for the entire trip or 10,000 miles.
2. Many Sites Are Restricted
Unlike your home internet connection, your in-flight connection will come with an extensive range of restricted sites. This can be for various reasons. Obviously, sites offering adult content are off-limits. Airline Wi-Fi providers work with extremely limited bandwidth and must preserve the available data for other passengers.
Depending on the existing in-flight network infrastructure, you will also find restrictions for live video streaming services such as Amazon Prime, Netflix, and Twitch. Before airline JetBlue upgraded its in-flight Wi-Fi, the carrier blocked Snapchat after it added live video services. American Airlines took a similar stance.
JetBlue has long since changed its in-flight Wi-Fi policy and now offers free Wi-Fi on its flights. Furthermore, that’s why airlines implement different in-flight Wi-Fi tiers, pushing travelers to purchase a basic package for messaging or upgrade to a more expensive Wi-Fi package that enables streaming, and so on.
3. In-Flight Wi-Fi Is Unreliable or Restricted
While testing Gogo’s incoming 2Ku in-flight Wi-Fi, Ars Technica’s Jonathan M. Gitlin made two important observations.
On his flight to the test, using GoGo’s ATG4, it took four minutes to upload four images with a total size of 1.5MB. At times, he couldn’t even connect to the Ars CMS. ATG4 may have increased connectivity, but upload speeds are still an absolute horror show. The second observation was the drastic improvement using GoGo’s Ku2 in-flight Wi-Fi, uploading 25 images totaling 26.3MB in just 2 minutes and 13 seconds.
Simply put, your in-flight Wi-Fi won’t compare with your home internet or 4G/5G mobile connection. The sheer volume of passengers attempting to use the limited bandwidth will always create issues. Increasing the bandwidth will certainly help the in-flight Wi-Fi experience, but users will still saturate whatever available data there is.
An Airbus A321 in high-density configuration (the one used overwhelmingly by low-budget carriers) holds 236 passengers. A typical Emirates Airbus A380 with a three-class layout (containing economy, business, and first-class seats) holds an astonishing 517 passengers.
You’ve got to fight all of them for internet access.
At other times, the airline imposes restrictions on the amount of data you can use. For example, Trusted Reviews Chris Smith found his Virgin Atlanic Wi-Fi Max plan restricted to 500MB data, despite it being advertised as a whole flight service. This, for the princely sum of £30—the fee many pay for their monthly home internet connection in the UK.
Which Airlines Offer In-Flight Wi-Fi?
Domestic US flyers are lucky in that almost all carriers have some form of in-flight Wi-Fi. Rather than list the airlines that do offer it, I might as well mention the major ones that don’t:
Allegiant and Frontier are low-budget carriers and are unlikely to install the costly hardware in-flight Wi-Fi requires. In addition, passengers using those services want cheap flights, and offering an in-flight Wi-Fi amenity isn’t cost-effective. After all, anything that increases the cost of a ticket is to be avoided.
Hawaiian, on the other hand, isn’t a low-budget carrier. The Hawaiian state flag carrier is investigating in-flight Wi-Fi options but still hasn’t provided in-flight Wi-Fi at the time of writing.
Europe and the Rest of the World
Ryanair, EasyJet, Norwegian, Vueling, Wizz Air, and Eurowings dominate the inter-European market.
In-flight Wi-Fi access is a mixed bag. Vueling, Eurowings, EasyJet, and Norwegian all offer in-flight Wi-Fi;
EasyJet has a device connection portal on some flights, depending on the age of the airplane, where you can connect to and stream a limited range of films and shows but no actual web browsing, social media, or otherwise. You can find a similar service on certain Ryanair flights. However, Wizz Air has nothing at all, so make sure you load up your devices with shows before leaving home.
But that’s just the budget carriers. The national and long-haul carriers all now offer in-flight Wi-Fi in some format.
Across the Middle East and Asia, it is a similar story. There are numerous low-cost and premium carriers, all offering in-flight Wi-Fi. For example, ANA, Emirates, Cebu Pacific, China Airlines, China Eastern, EVA Air, Etihad, Garuda Indonesia, Philippine Airways, Qatar Airways, Quantas, and others allow you to connect to the internet on your flight.
Of course, check each airline for specific details before you fly to avoid disappointment (or shock at a terrible deal).
One massive misnomer in the global in-flight Wi-Fi market was India. In 2016, the Indian government banned in-flight Wi-Fi, despite assurances from the Indian aviation ministry that the technology is completely safe. Other airlines even went as far as turning off in-flight Wi-Fi to comply with Indian airspace regulations.
In May 2018, the Indian government and Telecom Commission approved the introduction of in-flight Wi-Fi to flights within India, as well as those aircraft within its airspace, and in 2020, the Indian government overturned its in-flight Wi-Fi ban.
In-Flight Wi-Fi Is a Last Resort
Advances to in-flight Wi-Fi technology mean your chances of getting online while gliding through the sky are decent—but not excellent. In some cases, you will pay over the odds for a poor connection. Times are changing, though. The numerous satellite internet companies vying to supply in-flight Wi-Fi services to users could well bring forth a golden period of faster speeds and better connectivity.
Additional investment, development, and research can only be good for passengers who want to watch a film or send an invoice as they head off on holiday.