Wi-Fi on the plane. Is it worth the cost?

Almost all airlines offer in-flight Wi-Fi, but is it worth spending money on? See the pros and cons.

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On almost all flights you can now use your mobile phone or tablet to access the internet. Whether your flight is short, say within Europe, or long like a trip to America, you can continue your work or entertainment online.

More and more airlines are offering in-flight Wi-Fi, allowing passengers to check email and surf the web, even watch a streaming movie, while 30.000 feet in the sky.

Whether or not in-flight Wi-Fi is offered has as much to do with the technology of the plane as it does with the airline. Airlines are ordering aircraft with built-in Wi-Fi networks, or if they don't have them, they're installing Wi-Fi systems on their older planes.

Although in-flight WiFi has become normalized on all commercial airlines, many passengers wonder how it works while 35.000 feet above the ground. So how does Wi-Fi work on airplanes? Which airlines offer it? And more importantly, what are the cons?

How does in-flight Wi-Fi work?

airplane wi fi

Simple telephone antennas have a certain range, so when an airplane climbs to a high altitude, the signal can no longer reach your cell phone. Plus the plane's metal frame acts like a cage that prevents ground signals from penetrating it. So how do airplanes provide internet connection some 12 kilometers above the earth's surface? There is a simple answer to this.

Modern airplanes have antennas that allow them to receive signals from one of two main sources:

  • the ground stations and
  • the satellites.

Initially, airlines used these antennas to only carry information between the aircraft and the airline's offices on the ground. However, they then realized the potential to offer in-flight connectivity. As a result, airlines have invested in installing WiFi systems on their aircraft to increase their competitiveness, especially on busy routes.

The first method, Air-to-Ground (ATG), uses a series of overlapping ground stations that continuously broadcast a signal in the sky via cellular networks. The aircraft connects to ground stations using antennas located on the underside of its fuselage.

gogo atg 4 antenna airplane

The connection is forwarded to a server and router located on the aircraft and then broadcast throughout the cabin.

The major disadvantage of in-flight ground station Wi-Fi is the lack of coverage anywhere on a flight, as it may cross large stretches of water or pass through mountainous terrain.

The second method uses communication satellites that receive their signal with antennas located on top of the aircraft's fuselage. Wi-Fi via satellites offers increased reliability, coverage and speed.

Ku-Band and Ka-Band are 2 types of satellite operating systems, with Ku-Band using a frequency of 12-18 GHz and Ka-Band 26,5-40 GHz. The higher the frequency, generally the greater the available bandwidth.

And when we say satellites, we don't mean Starlink satellites, since this service will be launched by SpaceX in 2023 and will it is called Starlink Aviation. It currently relies on high-orbit satellites.

Of course some aircraft that have both types of antennas run a hybrid WiFi operating system, which switches between terrestrial WiFi and satellite WiFi depending on the location of the aircraft.

The companies that provide Wi-Fi on airplanes work just like the internet providers in your city. They have their own satellites and their own ground antennas.

Satellite Wi-Fi coverage has grown significantly in recent years, with satellite Internet companies such as OneWeb, ViasatThe GoGo Business AviationThe Inmarsat the European Aviation Network (EAN), Starlink and others, to provide advanced in-flight Wi-Fi services to airlines.

For example, British company OneWeb has partnered with Panasonic Avionics to offer its satellite Wi-Fi service to its customers Panasonic Avionics. Accordingly, the airline company Aegean distributes internet to its customers through it European Aviation Network, which is a network built by Deutsche Telekom and Inmarsat in partnership with Nokia.

As you might expect, SpaceX's Starlink Wi-Fi satellite service isn't far from the action. Starlink Aviation is due to launch in 2023, with SpaceX saying its service will deliver up to 300Mbps per plane, with an ultra-low 20ms latency.

Given Starlink's already decent satellite coverage and its plans to launch thousands of low-orbit satellites in the coming years, it's very likely that we'll see Starlink Aviation become one of the leading Wi-Fi services for airplanes.

The cons of in-flight Wi-Fi

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The main Achilles heel of in-flight Wi-Fi is connectivity. More airlines than ever offer some form of in-flight Wi-Fi, but whether it's worth using is another question.

There are a few things to consider before purchasing an in-flight Wi-Fi connection on your upcoming trip.

In-flight Wi-Fi isn't cheap for what it offers
Even though coverage is better than ever, the price of in-flight Wi-Fi remains high. Data usage restrictions are reduced as in-flight connectivity and network capacity increases, but you'll still pay a price for a not-so-decent connection.

In 2016, the blogger Ben Schlappig bought possibly one of the worst in-flight Wi-Fi deals ever. 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 100 KB cost $0,17. Yes, you read that right: kilobytes. Since the average web page size is now around 2-3MB, you're not going to do much.

However, this experience was several years ago. In-flight Wi-Fi services and costs are better depending on the airline.

For example, in Aegean at the time of writing this article, there are two main services. Text & Surf costs 4 euros for up to 1200 miles (400 km, something like Athens - Thessaloniki) and with a speed of up to 1.5 Mbps, and Stream for 9 euros for up to 2700 miles (800 km) and up to 15 Mbps.

On Emirates it costs from $9,99 to $19,99 depending on the length of the flight, or you can opt for the cheaper Unlimited Chat service between $2,99 ​​and $5,99, but this only enables WhatsApp, iMessage etc.

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 sending emails and its cost varies depending on the length of your flight, while the Stream Pass costs €30 for the entire trip or 10.000 miles (3.500 km).

To Lufthansa, if you want to travel from Athens to Berlin you will have to pay 25 euros for a 4 Mbit/s connection.

American JetBlue is the only US airline that offers free Wi-Fi for all passengers. It is referred to as “Fly-Fi” and is provided by the operator Viasat.

Many sites are restricted
Unlike your internet connection at home, your in-flight connection will come with a wide range of restricted websites. This can be due to several reasons. Apparently, sites that offer adult content are blacklisted.

Airline Wi-Fi providers operate with extremely limited bandwidth and must keep data available for all passengers.

Depending on your existing in-flight network infrastructure, you'll also find restrictions on live video streaming services like Amazon Prime, Netflix, and Twitch. Before JetBlue upgraded its Wi-Fi, the carrier blocked Snapchat when it added live video services. American Airlines took a similar stance.

JetBlue has long since changed its Wi-Fi policy and now offers free Wi-Fi on its flights.

In-flight Wi-Fi is unreliable or limited
In-flight Wi-Fi will not compare to your home internet or 4G/5G mobile connection. The sheer volume of passengers trying to use the limited bandwidth will always cause problems. Increasing bandwidth will certainly help, but users will still have limits on available data.

An Airbus A321 on economy flights (those largely used by low-budget carriers) seats 236 passengers. A standard Emirates Airbus A380 with a three-seat layout (comprising economy, business and first class seats) seats 517 passengers.

In other cases, the airline imposes restrictions on the amount of data you can use. You also cannot use Wi-Fi at any altitude of the plane. It is usually available from one height up. For example easyJet provides Wi-Fi from 10.000 feet and above (3,5 km).

Which airlines offer in-flight Wi-Fi?


All US carriers have some form of in-flight Wi-Fi. In Europe things are divided. Vueling, Eurowings, EasyJet, Aegean, Lufthansa and Norwegian offer in-flight Wi-Fi. Ryanair does not have.

Usually Europe's national carriers and long-haul carriers now offer Wi-Fi, at least in some form.

Across the Middle East and Asia, it's a similar story. There are many low-cost carriers that all offer 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 internet on your flight.

Of course, check with each airline for specifics before plunking down your cash to avoid disappointment (or fee shock).

In-flight Wi-Fi is a last resort

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Advances in Wi-Fi technology have made aerial connections decent, but not great. In some cases, you will pay quite a lot of money for a bad connection. The competition as well as the continuous growth of human connectivity is expected to work in your favor.

Airplanes are one of the few places where payment is required to access Wi-Fi, but it looks like that may be about to change. Airlines like JetBlue now provide free in-flight Wi-Fi to their customers, and it looks like Delta and Hawaiian Airlines will follow suit.

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Written by Dimitris

Dimitris hates on Mondays .....

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