Today (April 14, 2017): Travel tip: which airlines offer free in-flight WiFi?
With today’s society having a very difficult time to disconnect and unplug, onboard WiFi is a service that people on the go value highly. Recent research suggests that more than 70% of airline passengers want to have internet access during a flight to avoid boredom, stay in touch with friends and family on the ground, or complete business work. Unfortunately, there’s still a long way to go when it comes to the onboard WiFi, since its exorbitant pricing and ultra-low speed are problematic for most passengers. The good news though is that in-flight WiFi is getting better, faster, and cheaper, and it is an increasingly common feature offered by more and more flagship airlines and low-cost carriers alike. Currently, the US has the best infrastructure and technology for onboard internet than anywhere else in the world, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that North American carriers have better and cheaper WiFi offering as compared to their counterparts in Asia, Europe, Oceania, Latin America or Africa.
In this article:
- How does inflight WiFi work?
- Why is inflight WiFi so expensive?
- Which airlines offer free WiFi
How does inflight WiFi work?
There are two ways for an internet signal to reach an aircraft at 12 km (40,000 ft).
As the name implies, the signal goes from the airplane’s antenna (usually on the belly of the fuselage) directly to mobile broadband towers on the ground. As the airplane travels across different sections of airspace, the connection switches from one tower to the next, similar to what happens with your cell phone when you’re driving. However, the ground-based towers used for onboard WiFi are much larger than those that are used for mobile phones as they point up instead of out to the side. As an airplane passenger, you won’t notice any interruption of the internet connection unless the plane flies over large bodies of water or remote terrain. Gogo is the top provider of this type of service, and currently offers a bandwidth for its newest generation system (ATG4) of up to 10 megabits per second (Mbps) per airplane, which is three times the data speeds of the first generation technology. This is enough for sending and receiving emails, and casual web surfing, but not for streaming videos. The data are equally distributed among the users in the plane, so as a result, the onboard internet slows down as more passengers on the same plane connect to the WiFi service.
With this technology, the signal from an airplane travels in space to orbiting satellites, which connect with earth via receivers and transmitters. These are the same satellites that are used for weather forecasting, television signals, and covert military operations. The signal is transmitted to and from your devices (e.g. laptop, smart phone, tablet) via an antenna on the top of the airplane, which connects to the closest satellite. This is the primary technology used for overwater flights (e.g. USA to Europe, or USA to Oceania) or flights over remote areas (eg. Siberia) where ground-based mobile towers are not an option. WiFi via satellite technology is slightly slower as compared to ground-to-air transmission, since the signal travels from the jet to a satellite orbiting some 35,000 km (22,000 mi) above the earth and back again in a bit over half a second. In addition, the download speed of the internet depends on the number of airplanes that are connected with a satellite at any given time. Currently, there are three types of satellite transmission that offer different levels of performance (the “band” in use refers to the radio frequencies used to and from the satellite:):
- L-band (e.g. Inmarsat Swift Broadband) uses frequencies in the 1 to 2GHz range and offers a maximum of 422 kilobites per second (kbps) per airplane
- Ku-band (e.g. Panasonic, Global Eagle, and Gogo) uses approximately 12-18GHz and offers a maximum 20-40Mbps per airplane.
- Ka-band (e.g. ViaSat) uses the 26.5-40GHz segment of the electromagnetic spectrum higher speed and currently offers the fastest Wi-Fi service available for airlines with speeds of up to 70 Mbps per airplane. This is similar to the speed you are used to in your home.
Airlines may use a mix of any of the above networks. United, for example, offers service from Gogo, Panasonic or ViaSat depending on the aircraft you fly.
Why is inflight WiFi so expensive?
It is clear that inflight WiFi involves a lot of state-of-the-art technology, engineering and maintenance, and all of that doesn’t come cheap. In addition, antennas on the fuselage’s belly (ground-to-air signalling) or top (satellite transmission) also increase drag, thus increasing fuel burn and fuel related costs to the airline’s bill. All those extra costs are usually passed on to passengers, except for a few airlines (cf below).
What airlines offer free WiFi?
Want to know which airlines offer inflight internet access? Here’s the complete list. Think I forgot one? Please share your experience in the comments section.
North American airlines
- JetBlue Airways: Basic service is free, and premium service is $9 per hour.
- Norwegian: Free service on flights within Europe and between the US and Caribbean (no service on transatlantic flights).
- Finnair: Business Class passengers and Finnair Plus Gold members can enjoy complimentary internet access for one hour. For Finnair Plus Platinum members the service is complimentary for the whole flight.
- Aer Lingus: WiFi is complimentary for Business Class passengers.
Middle Eastern airlines
- Emirates: The airlineoffers 10MB of data free to all passengers, with an extra 500MB for $1 on Airbus A380 aircraft.
- Qatar Airways: Free for the first 15 minutes, then $5 for one hour or $10 for three hours. On longer flights, passengers can access wifi for the duration of the trip for a flat fee of $20.
- Turkish Airlines: WiFi is complimentary for Business Class passengers, and for Economy Class passengers who are members of its Elite or Elite Plus rewards program.
- Philippine Airlines: The airline offers 30 minutes of free inflight WiFi across all cabin classes.
- Air China: The airline offers free download speeds of up to 30Mbps, but the service is only available on domestic flights and can only be used on a tablet or laptop – not a smartphone.
- China Eastern: The airline offers free WiFi but passengers are limited to 258 yuan worth of use on both domestic and international flights.
- Nok Air: The airline offers free WiFi for the duration of the flight, although it is only available on a small number of aircraft.
Enjoy the weekend and stay tuned for Monday when I reveal a new top 10 travel list.