Gone are the days of flipping through the in-flight magazine over and over again until you've practically memorized each article therein. Even bringing a book on a long haul flight now seems like a clap back aimed at our increasingly connected world. On more and more flights, everyone from 1A all the way back to 36F passes the time in the air staring at their phones and tablets, working or playing or just idly browsing… assuming there is Wi-Fi, that is.
Many national carriers have now partnered with internet service providers to equip their entire fleets with Wi-Fi capabilities, which makes sense considering that in-flight Wi-Fi is, according to surveys, the amenity passengers want the most. Lots more (including regional and international carriers) have Wi-Fi on select routes or on certain aircraft.
Of course, anyone who has ever tried and failed to get onto the in-flight Wi-Fi knows how frustrating it can be to share a signal with a plane full of fellow passengers. When it connects and your kid can zone out with PBS Kids as you rocket over the Atlantic, it's a marvel of technology. When it doesn't and you promised your boss you'd respond to that critical email en route, the magic of air travel is overshadowed by your irritation.
So how does that broadband signal (as weak as it sometimes is) get to the plane? And who are the internet providers that deliver it? We dug into how in-flight Wi-Fi works, who has it, how much it costs, and why it's sometimes super spotty so that the next time you hop on a plane, you'll be able to explain to your row mates how internet providers are keeping passengers connected up there among the clouds.
Let's Take a Look at the Technology
There are two ways that airplanes get the broadband signal that becomes the in-flight Wi-Fi.
First, there is ground-based broadband. Planes have a fin-shaped antenna located along the belly of the fuselage that can connect to the nearest ground cell tower on a rolling basis. It picks up the broadband signal from these towers and that signal becomes a hotspot that passengers can connect to.
Gogo is the largest provider of ground-based broadband for airplanes, which clocks in at just a few Mbps per plane that all passengers share. On aircraft utilizing ground-based broadband, streaming is usually blocked and the signal only lasts as long as the plane is over land. That means this type of in-flight Wi-Fi is found on domestic routes only.
Then there's satellite broadband, which will work when the plane is flying over water. It's essentially just like the satellite internet people have in their homes. The satellite signal that lets passengers use in-flight Wi-Fi is beamed via orbiting satellite to an antenna under a bubble shaped dome on the top of the fuselage. The antenna picks up the signal by pointing at whichever satellite in orbit is nearest at any given time.
The big difference between home service and the satellite broadband on planes is that on longer flights, the plane will move between coverage areas and the antenna will need to be re-aimed at the next satellite. During the transition from one transponder to the next, passengers may notice the connection dropping briefly.
In both cases, the Wi-Fi signal is distributed to passengers via a router on the aircraft.
Here are the Airlines that Have It
As noted above, Gogo is one of the main internet providers supplying broadband to domestic airlines. They debuted their service in 2008 on American Airlines and eventually landed contracts with most of the major carriers in America like United Airlines, Delta, and Virgin America.
When you're flying with a Gogo-partnered airline, you purchase Wi-Fi directly from Gogo via their website. Packages are sold by duration. One hour of in-flight internet access on most airlines costs $7, a day of Wi-Fi costs $19, and there are also monthly and yearly packages for more frequent travelers.
Some domestic carriers have chosen not to use Gogo but still offer some broadband access to passengers. Southwest, for instance, offers internet access on select routes for $8 per day, and Hawaiian Airlines offers limited connectivity via the airline's mobile app.
Most of the big international airlines now offer Wi-Fi access to passengers thanks to a variety of internet providers. Because the different carriers are using different providers, each has its own unique features and pricing. On Lufthansa, the in-flight Wi-Fi signal is delivered by Deutsche Telecom, one hour of access costs $10, and access for the entire flight costs $19. Emirates gives passengers two hours of Wi-Fi access for free (up to 20 MB of data), and then the connection costs $9.99 per flight for up to 150 MB or $15.99 per flight for up to 500 MB. Qantas has free Wi-Fi service on select flights within Australia and will add more Wi-Fi enabled planes to its fleet in the near future. Norwegian Air gives passengers free Wi-Fi on most of its flights in Europe as well as between the U.S. and the Caribbean, but has no broadband on long-haul flights.
Expect to see more major carriers offering better and cheaper Wi-Fi because of customer demand and more smaller carriers offering internet on their flights to keep up with the big players in aviation.
Unpacking Why In-Flight Wi-Fi Is So Slow
When Gogo launched as Aircell and completed the first aircraft installations of its technology in 2007, the 3 Mbps connection they offered was more than sufficient. There were not nearly as many Wi-Fi enabled phones, tablets, and computers in the cabin and fewer passengers were consuming streaming content.
Now we all have at least a phone in our pockets, and that device is loaded down with Wi-Fi guzzling apps, which means that the 12 Mbps satellite connection planes are tapping into today is being stretched to its limit on just about every flight. Meanwhile, the internet providers that operate the satellites that are providing the signals would no doubt love to upgrade them, but those upgrades can be cost prohibitive. Consequently, the technology that drives in-flight Wi-Fi has lagged behind other forms of broadband, though speeds and reliability are both improving with the passage of time thanks to smaller tech advancements.
Why In-Flight Wi-Fi Is So Pricey
Satellite upgrades costs a lot of money. Outfitting older planes with new in-aircraft broadband systems isn't cheap, either. Just retrofitting a single aircraft may cost as much as $500,000! Antennas create drag, increasing fuel use, which can make routes more expensive to fly. And then there is the cost of the personnel needed to install and maintain these systems. All of these costs get passed on to passengers, who pay anywhere from $5 for an hour of Wi-Fi access to $50+ per month.
Of course, this doesn't explain why prices for in-flight broadband not only differ by airline but also by where and when you're flying. One carrier may charge a lot more or a lot less than another carrier for access on the same route, and that same carrier may price access differently on different routes, too. Sometimes Wi-Fi prices can vary depending on the day of the week! This is because the internet providers and the airlines use analytics to set pricing for maximum profits and to ensure that the demand for bandwidth doesn't outpace supply.
It also doesn't explain why prices keep going up year over year. That may be the result of airlines realizing that they can charge business travelers (who are frequent users of in-flight Wi-Fi) as much as they like since it's often employers who are paying for it. The high prices keep some passengers without expense accounts from connecting, which may be an important part of ensuring that older in-flight networks don't become completely congested and thus unusable.
Will We See Improvements to In-Flight Wi-Fi Soon?
Given the fact that carriers have been equipping planes with Wi-Fi for a decade, you might assume that the connections would be much more reliable now. In-flight Wi-Fi has certainly gotten better over time, with fewer dropped connections, but access is still pretty iffy. New systems, like Gogo's 2Ku, aim to change that in the US, and across the pond they're putting together a high-capacity satellite network backed up by ground towers that will make the Wi-Fi on flights across continental Europe faster and more stable.
Meanwhile, on the carrier side, airlines are upgrading their fleets with aircraft that come with better broadband routers already installed and these improvements will soon allow travelers to tap into Wi-Fi networks comparable to those on the ground. This investment is driven by the hope that passengers who can stream audio and video or work on flights will be loyal to the airlines that let them do so. Right now, the data backs it up. According to one study, 67% of passengers would re-book with an airline that had great Wi-Fi, and high-value, high-paying customers (business travelers, families, and 18-30 year old) are the ones most likely to use it.
Ultimately there will come a day when most or even all airlines have deals with internet providers to offer fast, reliable Wi-Fi on their routes. Whether the cost will eventually drop, driven by market forces or customer complaints, however, remains to be seen.
Want to check out how the internet providers in your neighborhood are pricing their plans? The first step is finding the ISPs in your area.