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 in-flight entertainment system.
But now in this digitally-demanding age, more and more airlines are introducing onboard Wi-Fi so that passengers can share their trip 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.
How Airplane Wi-Fi Works
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 that uses signals from satellites orbiting the earth.
Air to Ground (ATG) Wi-Fi
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 they are 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 30-40 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 70 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 is one such airline that says that its high-speed Wi-Fi is available 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 2 satellites, with more planned for launch in 2021 and 2022. These additional satellites are set to increase coverage to North and South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia Pacific, so this should be a real game-changer for ViaSat, if successful.
At present, 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.
Onboard Wi-Fi Installation
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 up to $25,000 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.
Airline Wi-Fi Availability and Fees
Most of Alaska Airlines’ aircraft currently offer Gogo ATG4 basic inflight internet (except their Q400 planes where no Wi-Fi is available) that does the job for checking emails, social media, and a bit of browsing. They are, however, rolling out enhanced Gogo 2Ku satellite Wi-Fi, and as of May 2019, 29 of their 241 aircraft had been upgraded.
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. It’s promised on all Airbus and Boeing aircraft (excluding the 737-700) by the end of 2020.
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.
Alaska Airlines Wi-Fi Fees
|Inflight messaging||Free||Works with iMessage, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp|
|1-hour pass||$7||Valid for 1 hour of continuous use from activation; expires 30 days after purchase|
|24-hour pass||$19||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)|
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.
- Gogo 2Ku on around 75% of its Airbus A319s, all A320s, and Boeing 757s that operate to Hawaii
- ViaSat on the remaining 25% of its Airbus A319s, all A321s, all Boeing 757-800s, and Max 8s
- Panasonic on the Airbus A330-200/300, Boeing 757-200, 767-300, 777-200ER/300ER, and the 787-8/9
On some domestic and international routes, the satellite Wi-Fi service also enables passengers to watch live TV on up to 12 channels.
American Airlines Wi-Fi Fees
|Monthly American Airlines plan||$59.95||2 devices|
|Gogo 2Ku 1-hour pass||$10||Valid for 1 hour of continuous use from activation; expires 30 days after purchase|
|Gogo 2Ku 24-hour pass||$24||Valid for 24 hours of continuous use from activation; expires 30 days after purchase|
|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|
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 Air Lines
Delta offers Wi-Fi on almost all of its flights with Gogo/Intelsat-powered Wi-Fi on all aircraft with 2+ cabins. 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:
- Gogo 2KU on 737-700/800/900, some 757-200s, 757-300, A319, A320, A321, and A350
Standard Wi-Fi (Gogo KU) is on the A330, some 757-200s, 767-300/400, and 777-200 (international flights).
Currently Delta is transitioning to Viasat on its new aircraft and retrofitting its A321ceo, 737-900ER and select 757-200 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 Gogo-equipped flights|
|Global day pass (pre-purchased)||$28||Valid for 24 hours of continuous use from activation across multiple worldwide Gogo-equipped flights|
|Global monthly pass||$69.95||Monthly unlimited use on North American and international Gogo-equipped flights|
|North America monthly pass||$49.95 per month||Monthly unlimited use on North American Gogo-equipped flights|
|North America annual pass||$599.99 per year||Annual unlimited use on North American Gogo-equipped flights|
Prices exclude taxes and fees.
Delta has stated that they hope to offer passengers free Wi-Fi in the not too distant future. In May 2019 they ran selected trial flights offering free Wi-Fi but have yet to disclose if/when they plan to roll this out to all flight operations. Watch this space!
JetBlue is the only U.S. airline that offers Wi-Fi free of charge for all passengers — and it’s high-speed Wi-Fi — supplied by ViaSat. JetBlue refers to this as “Fly-Fi.”
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 United States and 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.
United Airlines has 4 Wi-Fi providers across its fleet of aircraft:
- Gogo on the Embraer 170/175, Bombardier CRJ-700, and select Boeing 757-200s
- Panasonic on the Airbus 319, 320, select Boeing 757-200s, select 757-300s, 767-300/400ER, 777-200, 777-200ER, 777-300ER, 787-8, 787-9, and 787-10
- Thales on the 737-700/800/900, 737-900ER, and select 757-300s
- ViaSat on the Boeing 757-200s with a premium transcontinental service and 737 MAX 9
United Airlines Wi-Fi Fees
|Purchased on board||Varies from ~$5-20||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.
U.S. Airline Wi-Fi Subscriptions
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, American 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).
Airline specific subscriptions
United Airlines offer their own monthly and annual subscription plans that provide access across their multiple Wi-Fi providers. Passengers can opt for a North and Central America subscription or a global subscription.
Delta offers its monthly global subscription through Gogo for $69.95, valid on all domestic and international Gogo-equipped Delta flights.
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, such as AirlineCheckins.com and US Mobile; however, these plans have proven popular and now both state that they are sold out with the ability to join a waitlist.
International Airline Wi-Fi Fees
|Aer Lingus||50 MB: $7.95 (€6.95)|
120 MB: $15.95 (€13.95)
270 MB: $32.95 (€29.95)
Complimentary for Business Class passengers
15 minutes (10 MB): $5
1 hour (30 MB): $15
3 hours (100 MB): $40
Entire flight (150 MB): $50
30 MB: $15
100 MB: $40
|Aeromexico||Free messaging with iMessage, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp only|
|Air Canada||1 hour: ~$5 (CA$6.50)|
Flight duration: ~$16 (CA$21)
Monthly pass: ~$50 (CA$65.95)
|Air China||Free when registering pre-flight|
|Air France||Free messaging with iMessage, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp only|
Short-haul flights: ~$3 (€3) for flight duration
Medium-haul flights: ~$6 (€5) for flight duration
Long-haul flights: 1 hour ~$9 (€8), flight duration ~$20 (€18)
Long-haul flights: ~$33 (€30) for flight duration
Available on selected aircraft only; entire fleet by the end of 2020
|Air New Zealand||Free Wi-Fi for all passengers on selected Wi-Fi-enabled aircraft|
|Alitalia||10 MB: ~$2 (€2)|
50 MB: $7 (€6)
90 MB: $13 (€12)
200 MB: $22 (€20)
50 MB free for Magnifica Class and 10 MB free for Premium Economy
|All Nippon Airways||30 minutes: $4.95 (15 MB limit)|
1 hour: $8.95 (30 MB limit)
Flight duration: $19.95 (100 MB limit)
Free for First Class passengers
|Asiana Airlines||1 hour: $11.95|
3 hours: $16.95
Unlimited use: $21.95
|Austrian Airlines||FlyNet Messaging: ~$3 (€3)|
FlyNet Surf: ~$8 (€7)
FlyNet Stream: ~$13 (€12)
|British Airways||Browse packages|
1 hour: ~$6 (£4.99)
4 hours: ~$14 (£10.99)
Flight duration: ~$19 (£14.99)
1 hour: ~$10 (£7.99)
4 hours: ~$22 (£17.99)
Flight duration: ~$30 (£23.99)
Wi-Fi is available on 90% of British Airways flights
|Cathay Pacific||1 hour: $9.95|
6 hours: $12.95
Flight durations over 6 hours: $19.95
|China Airlines||15 MB: $3.25|
1 hour: $12
3 hours: $16
24 hours: $21
|China Eastern||Free Wi-Fi (no information disclosed on usage limits)|
|El Al Israel Airlines||Free messaging with iMessage, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp only|
Basic plan (browsing, emails, and short videos up to 3 minutes)
Europe: flight duration $9.99
North America: flight duration $14.99
Social plan (streaming and VPN access)
Europe: flight duration $19.99
North America: flight duration $24.99
|Emirates||2 hours free messaging with iMessage, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp only, or 2 hours of 20 MB of data|
Fees for data outside of the free 20 MB allowance
150 MB: $9.99
500 MB: $15.99
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
|Etihad||90 MB free data for First Class passengers|
30 MB: $4.95
90 MB: $11.95
180 MB: $19.95
|Eva Air||30 MB: $.95|
100 MB: $14.95
300 MB: $29.95
|Garuda Indonesia||Free Wi-Fi for First Class passengers|
Boeing 777-300 ER
1 hour: $11.95
3 hour: $16.95
24 hours: $21.95
Text chat (20 MB:) $5
30 minutes (15 MB:) $5
1 hour (30 MB:) $11.95
3 hours (50 MB:) $16.95
Flight duration (100 MB): $21.95
|Hainan Airlines||Free Wi-Fi (no information disclosed on usage limits)|
|Iberia||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)
|Japan Airlines||Domestic flights|
1 hour: $10.15
24 hours: $18.80
10% discount when paying with JAL card
|KLM||Select international flights|
Some aircraft charge by data:
20 MB: ~$6 (€5)
50 MB: ~$11 (€10)
200 MB: ~$33 (€30)
Some aircraft charge by time:
Free pass for messaging
Surf pass: 1 hour ~$9 (€8), flight duration ~$20 (€18)
Stream pass: flight duration ~$33 (€30)
Messaging: ~$3 (€3)
Surf: ~$8 (€7)
Stream: ~$13 (€12)
Messaging: ~$8 (€7)
Surf: ~$19 (€17)
Stream: ~$32 (€29)
|Malaysia Airlines||Messaging (10 MB): $2|
Social (50 MB): $10
Business (200 MB): $25
Available on the A350
|Norwegian Air||Free Wi-Fi for flights within Europe |
|Philippine Airlines||30 MB free for Economy passengers|
100 MB free for Business Class passengers
100 MB extra: $5
|Qantas||Available and free on selected domestic flights only|
|Qatar Airways||Free for the first 30 minutes and $10 to extend for the flight duration|
|SAS||Domestic and Scandinavian flights: $7|
European flights: $7
Flights to/from Asia and the U.S.: $19
|Singapore Airlines||100 MB free for Suites/First Class Passengers|
30 MB free for Business Class Passengers/ PPS Club Members
Other passengers or for extended use:
5 MB: $5.99
10 MB: $9.99
$0.15 per additional 100 KB over the data plan
|TAP Air Portugal||Between Europe and North and South America, onboard the A330 fleet|
14 MB: $14.99
50 MB: $45
Free messaging on the Neo fleet
|Virgin Atlantic||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)
|WestJet||Duration of flight: $7.99|
How to Save on Airplane Wi-Fi
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.
- CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® Mastercard® — Receive 25% off American Airlines inflight Wi-Fi when purchased with this credit card, valid on Wi-Fi passes for Gogo, Viasat, or Panasonic services, and Wi-Fi subscriptions.
- Southwest® Rapid Rewards® Performance Business Credit Card — Southwest’s Wi-Fi costs $8 per day and cardholders will receive this amount back in statement credits when the Wi-Fi is purchased with this credit card. Cardholders will be credited a maximum of 365 $8 credits in 1 year so even if you flew daily with Southwest, you would still receive free Wi-Fi!
The following credit cards give cardholders a yearly quota of free Gogo Wi-Fi passes that are valid on domestic and international flights, per segment.
- The Business Platinum Card® from American Express — 10 free Gogo passes. Annual fee: $695 (see rates and fees).
- U.S. Bank Altitude™ Reserve Visa Infinite® Card – 12 free Gogo passes. Annual fee: $400
- UBS Visa Infinite credit card – 12 free Gogo passes. Annual fee: $495
- Crystal® Visa Infinite® – 12 free Gogo passes. Annual fee: $400
Ground-based businesses have long seen the benefits of offering free Wi-Fi to their customers as the marketing exposure of a Facebook check-in or shared Instagram photo far outweigh the operational costs.
Airplanes are one of the few places that payment is required to access Wi-Fi, but it looks like this may be set to change with JetBlue trailblazing free inflight Wi-Fi and talks of Delta following suit.
With technical developments in streamlining airplane antennas, operational costs for fuel consumption are decreasing and these savings can hopefully be passed on to passengers.
The launch of the ViaSat-3 satellites in 2021 and 2022 will take ViaSat’s high-speed connection global and with Panasonic’s upgrades to Gen 3 modems, airlines using Panasonic’s Ku-Band connection should also see an improvement in speed.