Edited by: Keri Stooksbury
& Juan Ruiz
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Not too long ago, it was the norm to board a plane and know that you were entirely unreachable for the duration of your journey. There was nothing to do but switch off and enjoy a good book, have a snooze, or watch the inflight entertainment system.
But in today’s digitally-demanding age, more and more airlines are introducing onboard Wi-Fi so that passengers can share their trips on social media and business travelers can use their flight time productively.
Around a decade ago, when airplane Wi-Fi was first introduced, it was expensive and slow, with just enough bandwidth to satisfy a few laptops or Blackberry phones. But with the surge in smart device ownership, airlines are now exploring and implementing more advanced options to improve connectivity.
There are 2 types of operating systems for airplane Wi-Fi — air-to-ground (ATG) which bounces signals off ground-based cell towers, and satellite Wi-Fi which uses signals from satellites orbiting the earth.
ATG is the same operating system used to provide Wi-Fi to your home or mobile devices. Your mobile device or wireless router receives and transmits radio signals through its antenna to/from ground-based cell towers, and it’s the same on an airplane.
An antenna is placed on the underside of an airplane’s body so that it is positioned to receive and transmit signals to/from these cell towers. As the airplane’s journey progresses, these signals move from one available cell tower to the next.
The limitation of ATG is the lack of cell towers in remote areas of land or large expanses of water such as oceans, causing this type of connection to only be suitable for land travel, with the expectation of some black spots here and there.
Wi-Fi speed is slow with an ATG connection at around 3 Mbps, so it’s suitable for checking emails or messaging apps but wouldn’t hold up against any bandwidth-intensive actions such as streaming or uploading files.
With satellite operating systems, ground-based units transmit signals to a satellite in orbit, which then relays the signal to the airplane.
This system allows for better connections where no cell tower coverage is present, such as over large expanses of water, although due to the distance the signals must travel, latency issues can be experienced which can still affect Wi-Fi speed.
Ku-Band and Ka-Band are 2 types of satellite operating systems with Ku-Band utilizing 12-18 GHz and Ka-Band 26.5-40 GHz. The higher the frequency, generally the higher the available bandwidth.
Ku-Band speed is an improvement on ATG connections at around 30 to 40 Mbps; however, signals from satellites are shared with other airplanes so bandwidth reduction may occur depending on airspace concentration.
Although it’s not the fastest Wi-Fi available, it is the most consistent, with hundreds of Ku-Band satellites orbiting the earth, meaning that the airplane’s antenna will be more likely to maintain a signal. This bandwidth, when potentially split across many users, is generally not up to the job of streaming content.
Providers such as Gogo, Panasonic, and Global Eagle Entertainment provide connectivity to airlines using Ku-Band.
Ka-Band provides the most advanced high-speed satellite Wi-Fi, boasting up to 80 Mbps per airplane; however, there are significantly fewer Ka-Band satellites in orbit with a smaller geographical coverage, so it’s only suitable for some airlines at present.
JetBlue, American Airlines, and United Airlines offer high-speed Wi-Fi for routes over the contiguous U.S., whereas availability for other routes may vary.
Although many Ku-Band providers purchase bandwidth from various satellite owners, Viasat (a provider of Ka-Band) owns its own 4 satellites, with more planned for launch in the coming years. Additional satellites will increase coverage throughout the world, so this should be a real game-changer for Viasat, if successful.
At present, 1,400+ commercial aircraft flying in the U.S. use Viasat’s satellite inflight Wi-Fi. But airlines are having to consider which provider will suit their needs (e.g., domestic U.S. route coverage versus international), with some opting for hybrid Ka-Band and Ku-Band receivers to provide widespread coverage — but of course, this comes at a cost.
For satellite Wi-Fi systems, an antenna is placed within a dome-shaped container on top of the airplane. Over time these antennas have been designed to be more aerodynamic to produce less drag and therefore use less fuel.
Older antennas were required to face the direction of the signal and used a somewhat cumbersome gimbal to provide rotation and tilt. Newer antennas are streamlined and can receive and transmit signals without movement, which can save airlines tens of thousands of dollars in annual fuel reduction.
For ATG systems, there are usually a couple of antennas on the underside of the aircraft, and sometimes the addition of side antennas to receive and transmit signals to/from ground cell towers.
These signals are processed by an onboard modem and are distributed to passenger devices through wireless access points (WAPs), with 1 WAP required for approximately every 50 passengers.
As of 2022, 80% of Alaska Airlines’ aircraft, including all Airbus aircraft, have been upgraded with the Gogo 2Ku satellite, with the goal of equipping all of its fleet with satellite Wi-Fi by early 2023.
This improved Wi-Fi has 20 times more bandwidth, will enable passengers to stream content, and will be available from the departure gate right through to the arrival gate.
If you find yourself on a flight that has yet to be upgraded (E175 and select 737 aircraft), you’ll still have Gogo ATG4 basic inflight internet that does the job for checking emails, social media, and a bit of browsing. However, select 737-9 MAX aircraft and all Q400 aircraft used on shorter flights are not yet equipped with internet.
Basic inflight Wi-Fi coverage includes most of North America, however, satellite Wi-Fi will include some of the usual black spots such as Anchorage, Kona, Mazatlán, Milwaukee, and Orlando.
Hot Tip: T-Mobile customers on eligible plans (Magenta and Magenta MAX) and Sprint customers on eligible plans (Sprint ONE and Sprint MAX) can receive free Wi-Fi on many Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United flights.
Alaska Airlines Wi-Fi Fees
|Inflight messaging||Free||Works with iMessage, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp|
|Flight duration||$8||Available for purchase on board; pricing on Boeing 737 aircraft varies|
|1-hour pass||$7||Advanced purchase; valid for 1 hour of continuous use from activation; expires 30 days after purchase|
|24-hour pass||$19||Advanced purchase; valid for 24 hours of continuous use from activation; expires 30 days after purchase|
|Monthly pass||$49.95 per month|
($59.95 for 2 devices)
|Automatic monthly renewal unless canceled (possible anytime)
2 devices used on the same flight
|Annual pass||$599 per year||Automatic annual renewal unless canceled (possible anytime)
Alaska MVP Gold 100K elites can now choose this as one of their Choice Benefit perks
For North American flights, American has a direct Wi-Fi subscription plan with rates starting at $49.95 per month.
Depending on whether you’re flying on a narrow or wide-bodied aircraft outside of North America, American currently uses 3 different Wi-Fi providers, meaning some of the unlimited Wi-Fi packages are not compatible across all services.
All of American’s narrow-bodied aircraft are now equipped with high-speed satellite Wi-Fi provided by either Gogo or Viasat. Its wide-bodied aircraft uses Panasonic satellite Wi-Fi. Providers for individual aircraft models are featured below, with any model not mentioned using the older Gogo services or providing no Wi-Fi at all.
American Airlines Wi-Fi Fees
|Monthly American Airlines plan||$59.95||2 devices|
|Gogo monthly plan||$49.95||Can also be used for Viasat-equipped airplanes|
|Viasat 1-hour pass||$12||Valid for 1 hour of continuous use from activation|
|Viasat flight duration pass||$16||Valid for the flight duration|
|Panasonic 2-hour pass||$12||Valid for 2 hours of continuous use from activation|
|Panasonic 4-hour pass||$17||Valid for 4 hours of continuous use from activation|
|Panasonic flight duration pass||$19||Valid for the flight duration|
If you’re a Gogo subscriber, you can also use your subscription on plans that use Viasat Wi-Fi thanks to a partnership between the 2 companies. If you’re flying on a Viasat-enabled aircraft, simply go to the Wi-Fi home page and select Have a Gogo Subscription. From there you’ll be able to type in your Gogo account details and gain access to inflight Wi-Fi.
Hot Tip: To check if your flight has high-speed satellite Wi-Fi, look out for the icon on the flight results page, represented by a Wi-Fi icon with a clock dial.
Delta offers Wi-Fi on almost all of its flights with both Viasat and Gogo. As with other airlines, Delta has been upgrading its aircraft to offer high-speed satellite Wi-Fi that can now be found on the following aircraft:
Delta Air Lines Wi-Fi Fees
|Inflight messaging||Free||Works with iMessage, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp|
|North America day pass (pre-purchased)||$16||Valid for 24 hours of continuous use from activation across multiple North American Wi-Fi-equipped flights|
|Global day pass (pre-purchased)||$28||Valid for 24 hours of continuous use from activation across multiple worldwide Wi-Fi-equipped flights|
|Global monthly pass||$69.95||Monthly unlimited use on North American and international Wi-Fi-equipped flights|
|North America monthly pass||$49.95 per month||Monthly unlimited use on North American Wi-Fi-equipped flights|
|North America annual pass||$599.99 per year||Annual unlimited use on North American Wi-Fi-equipped flights|
Prices exclude taxes and fees.
Delta has stated that it hopes to offer passengers free Wi-Fi in the not-too-distant future. In May 2019 it ran selected trial flights offering free Wi-Fi but has yet to disclose if/when it plans to roll this out to all flight operations. Watch this space!
Hawaiian Airlines doesn’t yet offer Wi-Fi onboard, but in 2022 signed a deal with Starlink (yes … SpaceX/Elon Musk’s Starlink) to provide free Wi-Fi to passengers within the next year.
It plans to offer Starlink connectivity on flights departing Hawaii to cities throughout the mainland U.S. and international destinations and will begin installing Starlink terminals (antennas) on its planes next year.
JetBlue is the only U.S. airline that offers Wi-Fi free of charge for all passengers, and this high-speed Wi-Fi, referred to as “Fly-Fi,” is supplied by Viasat.
Partnering with Amazon, passengers can stream content through their Amazon Prime account, or non-members can purchase content to stream. Passengers will also earn 3 TrueBlue points for every eligible dollar spent on inflight purchases from Amazon.
Fly-Fi is available on most flights operating throughout the contiguous U.S. JetBlue’s Airbus A320 and A321neo aircraft also offer expanded coverage over much of the Caribbean and Central America. And its Airbus A321 Long Range aircraft offers expanded coverage to/from London.
JetBlue’s Fly-Fi has been praised for providing speeds similar to those achievable on the ground. It’s also one of the most widely accessible connections available gate-to-gate and from any altitude (some services are only available above 10,000 feet).
Southwest Airlines offers a flat fee of $8 per day for Wi-Fi access across multiple flights, if required. The service is free for Southwest’s A-List Preferred members.
Although Southwest uses a high-speed Ku-band connection, the airline does block access to bandwidth-hungry websites and apps such as HBO GO, Netflix, and VoIP.
Southwest Wi-Fi Fees
|Inflight messaging||Free||Works with iMessage and WhatsApp|
|Flight duration||$8||Available on all Southwest flights
Free for Southwest’s A-List Preferred members
Hot Tip: Learn more in our guide to Southwest Airlines Wi-Fi and inflight entertainment!
Spirit offers Wi-Fi on nearly all the routes it flies, and it plans to continue enhancing the service over the next year by adding multi-device plans, gate-to-gate coverage, and more.
In keeping with the airline’s brand, the service is relatively low-cost and dependent on the length of the flight.
Spirit Airlines Wi-Fi Fees
|Browsing||From $2.99||Lower speeds; browse, chat, use email and social media|
|Streaming||From $5.99||Speeds 20x faster than the browsing option; stream, browse, and chat|
United Airlines has 4 Wi-Fi providers across its fleet of aircraft:
United Airlines Wi-Fi Fees
|Inflight messaging||Free||Available on select Wi-Fi-equipped aircraft and works with iMessage, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp|
|Purchased on board||Varies from ~$8-10||Prices depend on the flight duration and aircraft Wi-Fi provider|
|Pre-purchased 1-hour pass||$7||Valid for 1 hour of continuous use from activation. Expires 30 days after purchase. Valid on Gogo-equipped aircraft|
|Pre-purchased 24-hour pass||$19||Valid for 24 hours of continuous use from activation. Expires 30 days after purchase. Valid on Gogo-equipped aircraft|
|North America monthly pass||$49 per month||Monthly unlimited use on North American Wi-Fi-equipped flights|
|Global monthly pass||$69 per month||Monthly unlimited use on North American and international Wi-Fi-equipped flights|
|North America annual pass||$539||Monthly unlimited use on North American Wi-Fi-equipped flights|
|Global annual pass||$689 per year||Annual unlimited use on North American and international Wi-Fi-equipped flights|
Hot Tip: For premium transcontinental services, you can check which Wi-Fi provider is on board by searching for your flight in the United app and checking under the Amenities section. This information is available 48 hours before the flight departs.
Many of the major U.S. airlines offer Wi-Fi subscriptions for frequent flyers, usually on a monthly or annual basis. This is great if you fly regularly with the same airline, but these subscriptions are not valid across multiple airlines, unfortunately.
For example, you can purchase a monthly domestic-use subscription with Gogo for $49.95 but you must select the airline you choose this to be valid for (available for Alaska Airlines or Delta).
Gogo used to provide multi-airline subscriptions; however, with more airlines adopting a mixture of different providers across their fleets (e.g., Gogo, Panasonic, Viasat, etc.), airlines do not want passengers to only have subscription access on certain aircraft.
With a Gogo day pass costing $19, it’s worth getting the monthly subscription if you fly domestically more than twice a month with the same airline (provided Gogo Wi-Fi is available on that specific aircraft/route).
American offers a direct Wi-Fi subscription plan for North American flights starting at $49.95 per month.
Delta offers its monthly global subscription through Gogo for $69.95, valid on all domestic and international Gogo-equipped Delta flights.
United Airlines offer its own monthly and annual subscription plans starting at $49 that provide access across its multiple Wi-Fi providers. Passengers can opt for a North and Central America subscription or a global subscription.
iPass provides access to millions of Wi-Fi hotspots across 180 countries and includes inflight Wi-Fi. iPass is marketed at companies rather than individuals; if you’re lucky enough to have an account through your employer you’ll have Wi-Fi access with select airlines.
iPass states that it partners with Gogo, Deutsche Telekom, and Panasonic to provide Wi-Fi on more than 4,000 aircraft (including domestic and international routes,) but some passengers have reported difficulties gaining access with some providers and airlines.
For a while there were a couple of companies offering subscriptions to iPass for $10 per month, like US Mobile; however, these plans have proven popular and now both state that they are sold out with the ability to join a waitlist.
|A330 and A321neoLR
Prices range from ~$3.99 to ~$24.99 depending on the length and speed of the connection
Complimentary for business class passengers and AerClub Concierge members
1 hour: $8.90
3 hours: $16.90
Entire flight: $24.90
|Free messaging with iMessage, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp only
1 hour: $11.95
|1 hour: ~$5 (CA$6.50)|
Flight duration: ~$16 (CA$21)
Monthly pass: ~$50 (CA$65.95)
|Air France and KLM||Message pass
Free messaging with iMessage, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp only
Short-haul flights: ~$3 (€3) for flight duration
Long-haul flights: ~$33 (€30) for flight duration
|Free Wi-Fi for all passengers on selected Wi-Fi-enabled aircraft|
|30 minutes: $4.95 (15 MB limit)|
1 hour: $8.95 (30 MB limit)
Flight duration: $19.95 (100 MB limit) OR 30 minutes: $6.95 (no limit)
3 hours: $16.95 (no limit)
Flight duration: $21.95 (no limit)Free for first class passengers
|1 hour: $11.95|
3 hours: $16.95
Unlimited use: $21.95
|FlyNet Messaging: ~$3 (€3)|
FlyNet Surf: ~$5 (€5) flights less than 90 min, ~$7 (€7) flights 90+ minutes
FlyNet Stream: ~$10 (€10) flights less than 90 min, ~$12 (€12) flights 90+ minutes
Messaging: ~$2.25 to $3.50 (£1.99 to £2.99)
Browse and stream: ~$5.50 to $14 (£4.99 to £11.99)Long-haul flights
Messaging: ~$3.50 to $6 (£2.99 to £4.99)
Browse and stream: ~$6 to $25 (£4.99 to £21.99)Wi-Fi is available on 90% of British Airways flights; cost depends on the duration of the flight
|1 hour on any flight: $9.95|
Flight durations under 6 hours: $12.95
Flight durations over 6 hours: $19.95
|15 MB: $3.25|
1 hour: $11.95
3 hours: $16.95
24 hours: $21.95
|Free Wi-Fi for first class passengers, chargeable for other passengers|
|Free messaging with iMessage, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp only
Basic plan (browsing, emails, and short videos up to 3 minutes)
Social plan (streaming and VPN access)
Business plan (streaming and VPN access)
|Unlimited messaging with iMessage, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp only for $2.99 to $5.99 depending on the length of the flight
30 minutes: $9.99
Free Wi-Fi for Blue, Silver, Gold, or Platinum Skywards members traveling in first and business, or Gold and Platinum Skywards members traveling in economy
|Free for first class passengers and Etihad Guest Platinum member
|30 MB: $4.95|
100 MB: $14.95
300 MB: $29.95
|Within Europe and the Middle East
Within Finland, Scandinavia, and Baltic Countries
To and From Asia North America, Havana, Puerto Plata
|Free Wi-Fi for first class passengers
Free messaging available on A330-300/200/900Neo
Boeing 777-300 ER and Airbus 330-900neo
50 MB: $11.95
|Hainan Airlines||Free Wi-Fi (no information disclosed on usage limits)|
|A330-200 and A350 — High-Speed Wi-Fi|
1 hour (40 MB:) ~$10 (€8.99)
3 hours (100 MB:) ~$22 (€19.99)
Flight duration (200 MB:) ~$33 (€29.99)A340-600 and A300-300 — Standard Wi-Fi
4 MB: ~$6 (€4.95)
10 MB: ~$11 (€9.95)
25 MB: ~$22 (€19.95)
45 MB: ~$39 (€34.95)
1 hour: $10.15
24 hours: $18.80
10% discount when paying with the JAL USA card
|Short-/Medium-haul FlyNet Mail and Surf:
Short-/Medium-haul FlyNet Stream:
|Messaging (10 MB): $2|
Social (50 MB): $10
Business (200 MB): $25
Available on the A350
|Free for all passengers to use for browsing, email, and messaging
3 hours of premium access to faster Wi-Fi for $14.95
|Philippine Airlines||30 MB free for economy passengers|
100 MB free for business class passengers
100 MB extra: $5
|Available and free on selected domestic flights only|
|Free for the first 30 to 60 minutes (depending on the flight) and $10 to $20 to extend for the flight duration|
|Domestic and Scandinavian flights: $7|
European flights: $7
Flights to/from Asia and the U.S.: $19
|100 MB free for Suites/first class passengers|
30 MB free for business class passengers/ PPS Club MembersOther passengers or for extended use:
5 MB: $5.99
10 MB: $9.99
$0.15 per additional 100 KB over the data plan
|Between Europe and North and South America, onboard the A330 fleet:|
14 MB: $14.99
50 MB: $45Free messaging on the Neo fleet
|40 MB: ~$6 (£4.99)|
150 MB: ~$19 (£14.99)
Unlimited data (on A330s, A340s, and 747s:) ~$19 (£14.99)
Messaging pass (on A330s, A340s, and 747s:) ~$4 (£2.99)
|The cost of Wi-Fi will vary depending on the destination and length of the flight.|
There are several credit cards that offer the benefit of free or discounted airplane Wi-Fi. These credit cards all have annual fees so are not worth getting for this benefit alone, but if you’re choosing between 2 cards, then this may swing the balance in favor of one over another.
Ground-based businesses have long seen the benefits of offering free Wi-Fi to their customers as the marketing exposure of a shared Instagram photo far outweighs the operational costs.
Airplanes are one of the few places where payment is required to access Wi-Fi, but it looks like this may be set to change with airlines like JetBlue trailblazing free inflight Wi-Fi and talks of Delta and Hawaiian Airlines following suit.
With technical developments in streamlining airplane antennas and operational costs for fuel consumption decreasing, the savings can hopefully be passed on to passengers.
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Airplane Wi-Fi is supplied through 1 of 2 operating systems. Air-to-ground Wi-Fi is where an antenna is mounted on an airplane to receive signals from ground-based cell towers, and satellite Wi-Fi is where ground signals are bounced to satellites in orbit that are then transmitted to an antenna positioned on top of an airplane.
In the U.S., the only airline to offer Wi-Fi for free is JetBlue. But Delta and Hawaiian Airlines plan to follow suit. Delta, United Airlines, Alaska Airlines, and Southwest all offer free messaging services, but this does not include the option to browse the web or stream content. Some international airlines offering free Wi-Fi are Air New Zealand, China Airlines, Norwegian Air, and Qatar Airways (first 30 minutes free).
Some international long-haul carriers offer Wi-Fi onboard their aircraft. Long-haul airlines offer satellite Wi-Fi as journeys would usually cross over a large expanse of water where air-to-ground Wi-Fi wouldn’t be suitable.
Most airlines charge for inflight Wi-Fi, with some based on time usage and some on data usage. U.S. airlines tend to offer hourly or day passes available to purchase either prior to, or on the flight, and monthly and yearly subscription services with unlimited use.
Airplanes can provide Wi-Fi when flying over oceans if they are supplied by a satellite operating system. This is where signals from ground units are beamed to satellites in orbit, which then relay these signals to an airplane even when traveling over water.
Gogo inflight Wi-Fi is not usually free with most airlines and passes must be purchased prior to, or during the flight. Gogo offers 1-hour or 24-hour day passes and some participating airline partners also offer monthly and annual subscriptions.
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