What is Inflight WiFi - How Does It Work

Flying might be an exciting experience for the first few times. However, we all know how it can get boring quickly afterwards, especially if you don’t know what is inflight Wi-Fi. 

To many people, or some of us in CabinZero at least, flying has become one of the most boring parts of our travelling journey. Since it's not just sitting in one place for a long time, but also is what stands between us and the wonderful destinations.

Yet, things have changed since we started using inflight WiFi! A couple of movies, online gaming, chatting with friends, etc., then it arrives.

Tips: We always watch some travelling videos about the destinations right before landing. It hypes up the anticipation.  

What is Inflight WiFi?

What is Inflight WiFi? - CabinZero

There is more than just looking out of the window. Photo by Ethan Hu on Unsplash

Inflight WiFi refers to the wireless internet connectivity provided during flights. Just like normal service on the ground, it allows you to access the internet, browse websites, send emails, use messaging apps, stream media, etc.

Of course, airlines can generate additional revenue by offering paid WiFi services. That’s why it is not always free. 

Carriers have come up with various models such as subscriptions, pay-per-use plans, or bundled packages, providing you opportunities to choose one that suits your needs best.

Types of inflight WiFi

Usually, airlines will use either Air-to-Ground or Satellite-based systems, but there is one upcoming type that might be popular in the future. What it is, you have to read to find out. 

Air-to-Ground (ATG) Systems

Air-to-ground (ATG) systems work their magic by tapping into ground-based cellular towers. These towers transmit signals to the aircraft using radio frequencies, enabling passengers to access WiFi.

Then, there will be an antenna on the aircraft waiting for those signals. When the signals come, they are routed to an onboard server and then distributed as the internet connections you are familiar with.

Pros:

  • Lower latency: ATG systems generally offer lower latency compared to satellite-based systems. The chance that you can load your favourite YouTube videos is higher. 
  • Higher bandwidth capacity: ATG systems can support higher bandwidth capacity, meaning more people can use the Wi-Fi at the same time. 

Cons:

  • Limited coverage: Since the ATG systems rely on ground-based towers, the further they are, the weaker the internet connection. If you are in remote areas, weak turns to non-existent. The same situation might also happen when the planes reach higher altitudes. 
  • Signal interference: Unfortunately, the signal strength of ATG systems can be affected by factors such as weather conditions, terrain or congestion in densely populated areas.

Satellite-based Systems

As its name suggests, this system uses satellites positioned in geostationary orbit or low Earth orbit to establish a connection between the aircraft and the ground.

Instead of receiving the signals from ground towers as in the previous case, the antenna now gets the signals from those satellites. The following process is the same as that of the ATG systems.

Pros:

  • Global coverage: Satellite-based systems provide a range across vast regions, including remote areas and international flights, ensuring connectivity throughout the journey.
  • Reliable at higher altitudes: Usually, they are better at maintaining connectivity, even at higher altitudes.
  • Scalability: This is crucial if it’s a big plane with a lot of passengers. 

Cons:

  • Higher latency: In exchange for better accessibility, the internet speed of this system is not too good due to the distance between the antennas and the satellites. 
  • Limited bandwidth: Another thing that can affect the internet speed. 

Starlink

What is Inflight WiFi? - CabinZero

Probably the future of not just inflight Wi-Fi but of the internet. Photo by ANIRUDH on Unsplash

Developed by SpaceX, Starlink can be the chosen system in the future. While the other two alternatives have limitations regarding coverage, speed, and latency, Starlink doesn't. It provides internet to everyone across the world.

With the global coverage and low Earth orbit positioning, Starlink's satellite constellation could offer a viable alternative for inflight connectivity.

Even though it has not been widely adopted by airlines, it already has a client: Hawaiian Airlines. In 2022, the company made a deal with SpaceX to integrate the Starlink system into their planes by 2023.  When the day comes, the internet is not just faster but also free.

Do You Know Who Provide The Inflight Wifi?

There are numerous internet providers specialising in onboard connectivity, but here are the top 3:

Gogo

Gogo is one of the leading providers of inflight connectivity solutions. They provide both types of inflight Wifi and also for both domestic and international flights. They are a big player.  

Panasonic Avionics

Panasonic Avionics is another prominent provider of inflight connectivity solutions. Currently, 100% of the Wi-Fi they provide is satellite-based. 

Viasat

Viasat is known for its satellite-based inflight WiFi services. They utilise advanced satellite technology to deliver high-speed internet connectivity to aircraft. 

Some airlines with inflight WiFi

What is Inflight WiFi? - CabinZero

Inflight WiFi prices of Emirates. Photo taken from emirates.com 

Delta Air Lines

Delta Air Lines offers inflight WiFi services on most of its domestic and international flights. They have partnered with multiple providers, including Gogo and Viasat, to ensure a reliable internet connection for their passengers. 

Since July 2023, passengers on 600 of Delta’s domestic flights are provided not just fast but also free inflight Wifi. Even though international and regional flights have not been equipped with this system, they will be at the end of 2024. 

To know whether your chosen flight is equipped with this new Wi-Fi, look for the “fast-streaming Wi-Fi’ symbols. If you forget to do so, keep an eye out for a blue decal that says “Fast, free Wifi” while boarding. 

Emirates

As one of the world's leading airlines, they provide inflight WiFi services on a vast majority of its flights. 

There are three in-flight tiers with different prices, from USD 2.99 to USD 19.99. However, from May 2023, they have started providing free Wi-Fi for Emirate Skywards members. 

Fun fact: With this new implementation, Emirates has witnessed an increase of 30% in users compared to last year. 

Lufthansa

What is Inflight WiFi? - CabinZero

Lufthansa’s pricing options for short-haul flights. Photo taken from lufthansa.com

Even though the airlines don’t provide free Wi-Fi, the prices are not too bad. If you don’t want to pay for this, consider signing up for the Travel ID or Miles & More of Lufthansa.

Being a member, you have access to the Wi-Fi for free in 30 minutes. This can be a significant amount of time if your flights are just 1 or 2 hours long. Unfortunately, according to our research, there has not been any support for long-haul flights.

American Airlines

American Airlines provides inflight WiFi services on many of their domestic flights. It would take more work to check for the prices since they don’t have a pricing table like Lufthansa. However, according to their words, most of their flights will offer Wi-Fi for as little as $10.

Plus, you can always access their official website, aa.com, for free. Very little fun or things to do there though. For frequent flyers, you should consider purchasing their monthly Wifi subscription. The prices are $49.95 and $59.95 for one and two devices respectively. The catch is that you have to be a member of AAdvantage.

JetBlue Airways

What is Inflight WiFi? - CabinZero

If you are confused looking at this, same story here. Photo taken from jetblue.com

JetBlue Airways, a popular low-cost carrier based in the United States, does offer inflight WiFi on their flights. Here is their explanation. For every flight JetBlue operates, the Wi-Fi will be provided across the contiguous U.S.

In addition to that, newly redesigned planes, Airbus A320, A321neo, and A220, have extended coverage to a significant portion of the Caribbean and Central America. 

However, only one of them, the Airbus A320, has the new inflight entertainment system. The older A321s still have the old one. Not that terrible, but it's not as stable as the one on A320s.

An important point to note is their explicit mention that the Wi-Fi service can be disrupted in inclement weather and other variables. If Wi-Fi is a must during your flight, check the weather forecast.

Singapore Airlines

What is Inflight WiFi? - CabinZero

Singapore Airlines’ inflight Wifi prices. Photo taken from singaporeair.com

Singapore Airlines, a renowned global carrier, offers inflight WiFi services on all flights, except for Boeing 737-800 NG.

If your plan is to take a round trip, be aware that the above prices are for each way. It means if you want to have Wi-Fi in both directions, double the chosen price.

If that is too expensive, consider one of these options: Suites, First Class, Business Class, KrisFlyer members, PPS Club members and supplementary cardholders. These tickets and memberships, despite being expensive themselves, will get you complimentary Wi-Fi for free. 

Does Inflight Wi-Fi Work Well?

Though it depends on the specific airline as well as the plan you purchase, Inflight Wi-Fi is good enough for common usages such as watching movies, scrolling social media, etc. Even at its best, the cabin's internet connection won’t be as good as your home’s. So don’t try anything too demanding, such as downloading 4K movies.

Moreover, there are numerous factors affecting the quality of the Wi-Fi when you actually use it. It might be because there are too many people using it, the weather is not good on that day, etc.

Just to be sure, we recommend you find online reviews of past passengers. Don’t forget to look at the date when they were written. 

Which Airline Has The Fastest Wi-Fi?

It’s challenging to choose which one has the fastest inflight Wi-Fi with numerous factors that can affect it. 

Nonetheless, if you want to have a great experience with the Wi-Fi, prioritise Delta Airlines (7mbp/s) and JetBlue Airways (15-20mbp/s). These two have had, for a long time, great reputations when it comes to Wi-Fi services. 

Do Planes Have Wifi Over The Ocean?

Technically, yes. However, the planes will likely switch to satellite-based Wi-Fi when they are out of range of ground-based towers. The speed and stability may be affected.


Challenges and Limitations of Inflight WiFi

As useful as it is, it is not without limitations and risks.

Bandwidth Limitations and Speed Issues

What is Inflight WiFi? - CabinZero

The speed is not always as fast. Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

One of the primary challenges of inflight WiFi is the limited bandwidth available for a large number of passengers simultaneously accessing the internet.

It does not mean that the inflight Wi-Fi is slow, but it’s slower than what you probably are used to. For example, according to the Federal Communications Commission, 12mbp/s is considered a good Wi-Fi speed. Yet, with the speed of 7mbp/s of Delta Airlines, you can access the internet normally. 

Due to the nature of its system, it typically is much harder to increase the speed of inflight wifi in comparison to home wifi.

Interference and Obstacles

Even though there is no wall inside a plane, there are still aspects inferring the flow of the Wi-Fi signals.

Some of the main factors are the aircraft's fuselage, wings, and other metal components. These metal pieces can act as shields, absorbing and reflecting radiofrequency signals and attenuating the Wifi signals.

The high speed and altitude of the aircraft are two other common factors. As the plane moves fast and changes its position quickly, it leads to signal dropouts and fluctuations in signal strength. 

Regulatory and Certification Requirements

This one is not much of a risk for you, but a challenge that airlines have to face to implement a WiFi system. 

In order to do so, the Wi-Fi systems have to pass numerous requirements regarding not just the companies’ guidelines but also certification processes to ensure there is no interference with the planes’ avionics and communication systems.

However, this process doesn't end even when the inflight WiFi system is certified. Airlines and technology providers must continuously monitor and update their systems to ensure ongoing compliance with the most updated regulations and standards.

FAQs

1. Is Inflight Wifi Free? 

Inflight WiFi services may be offered as complimentary or as paid options, depending on the airline and the type of WiFi service. Some airlines provide free basic internet access for messaging or limited browsing, while faster and more extensive connectivity may require a purchase or a subscription plan.

Let us give you some name.

  • Free for all: Japan Airlines, ANA, JetBlue, Alaska Airlines, etc.
  • Free for members: Emirates, Singapore Airlines.

2. Can I Use Inflight Wifi During Takeoff And Landing?

Generally speaking, no. In many cases, inflight WiFi services are available once the aircraft reaches a cruising altitude and until shortly before landing.

However, specific rules and regulations regarding the use of electronic devices, including WiFi connectivity, may vary by airline and country. Just ask the flight attendants to ensure you are doing the right thing. 

3. Can I Use Inflight Wi-Fi for Voice Calls Or Video Chats? 

What is Inflight WiFi? - CabinZero

Voice calls might not be allowed; be careful! Photo by DC Studio - stock.adobe.com

Message all you want, but the use of voice calls or video chats can be restricted on certain airlines or during specific flight segments. This is to maintain a quiet and comfortable environment for all passengers. 

Some airlines that don’t allow that are Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, etc. If having a video call is a must for you, consider choosing other ones, such as JSX.

4. Will Inflight Wifi Work Internationally? 

Inflight WiFi services can vary in availability and coverage depending on the flight route and airspace regulations. Some airlines offer WiFi services on both domestic and international flights (Delta Airlines, United Airlines, Lufthansa, etc.), while others may restrict it to specific regions or routes (Japan Airlines, Turkish Airlines, etc.). 

5. What should I do if I'm having trouble connecting to inflight WiFi? 

If you're experiencing difficulties connecting to inflight WiFi, first ensure that your device's WiFi is enabled and attempt to refresh the available networks. If the issue persists, try restarting your device or seeking assistance from the cabin crew. They can provide guidance or troubleshoot any connectivity problems.

Try To Use The Wifi On Your Next Flight

Now you know how inflight WiFi works, we believe boring flight is not a thing anymore.  Since inflight Wi-Fi can be expensive sometimes, consider your usage to purchase a suitable package. Still, if possible, choose the better options if you have some important to do while flying. 

Also, if you have any experience using inflight WiFi, please let us know how it was in the comment section below.  Until next time, happy travel!

Bui Hoang Hai


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