It was not so long ago that Wi-Fi at 35,000 feet was a pipe dream, leaving technophiles frustrated and everyone else eternally grateful.
But the dawn of internet access in the sky is now and well truly behind us as more and more airlines equip their fleets with the technology. Last week low-cost Norwegian became the latest to announce that passengers on its long-haul flights would be able to browse the internet, send emails and generally while away the hours, from this year, with half its fleet of 787 Dreamliners expected to be kitted out by 2020.
The airline, which has offered Wi-Fi on its European short-haul flights since 2011, claims to be the first budget carrier to introduce the service free of charge on intercontinental routes.
Norwegian is far from alone. According to analysis by travel comparison site Traveloka, only 10 of the world’s 50 best airlines – as ranked by Skytrax – have not yet introduced Wi-Fi on any of their planes.
Does this mean endless nuisance phone calls?
It’s worth noting that although one of the last vestiges of phone-free civilisation has been besieged, the majority of the world’s airlines still prohibit voice calls on flights. Indeed, in the US, it is the aviation regulator, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), that has imposed the ban.
Elsewhere, airlines are free to choose what is available to their customers. On British Airways flights, for example, the carrier says VoIP (voice over internet protocol) are “unavailable”. Virgin Atlantic, however, does not prohibit voice calls, with the service available on half of the airline’s fleet, neither does Emirates.
How does Wi-Fi at 35,000 feet work?
To simplify, there are two ways for an internet signal to reach your device at 35,000 feet. The first is via ground-based mobile broadband towers, which send signals up to an aircraft’s antennas (usually on the base of the fuselage).
As you travel into different sections of airspace, the plane automatically connects to signals from the nearest tower, so there is (in theory at least) no interruption to your browsing. But if you’re passing over large bodies of water or particularly remote terrain, connectivity can be an issue.
The second method uses satellite technology. Planes connect to satellites in geostationary orbit (35,786km above the planet), which send and receive signals to earth via receivers and transmitters. These are the same satellites that are used in television signals, weather forecasting, and covert military operations.
Information is transmitted to and from your smartphone via an antenna on the top of the aircraft, which connects to the closest satellite signal. Information is passed between the ground and the plane via the satellite. Wi-Fi signal is distributed to plane passengers via an onboard router.
In both cases, the US has a much more developed infrastructure than anywhere else in the world – so US carriers have a better (and cheaper) Wi-Fi offering than those in Europe.
Why is in-flight Wi-Fi so slow?
Technology is developing fast, but it has struggled to keep up with the sophistication and sheer number of Wi-Fi-guzzling devices.
Back in 2008, when in-flight broadband company Gogo (then known as Aircell) launched its first onboard Wi-Fi service on a Virgin America plane, the 3 Mbps connection was adequate for a few laptops (and streaming video was prohibited). But now, with every passenger toting at least one device to connect to countless apps, websites and services, there’s a much greater strain on resources.
These days, a satellite connection offers around 12 Mbps, but satellites are expensive to maintain and upgrade – so that technology is lagging behind too.
Why is in-flight Wi-Fi so expensive?
All of that technology doesn’t come cheap – and nor do the in-aircraft systems. Antennas also increase drag, adding fuel costs to the airline’s bill.
Those fees – plus engineering and maintenance costs – are usually passed on to customers. The price of in-flight connectivity varies between airlines, although some offer free trials – for example, the first 20MB on an Emirates flight is free.
How do airlines’ Wi-Fi compare?
As with voice calling, not every airline’s Wi-Fi offering is the same, with availability, speed and cost all varying greatly. Below, we round up the services offered by the some of the most popular airlines. Wi-Fi speeds are representative of download rates and courtesy of airlineswifi.com.
BA says Wi-Fi is being rolled out across all of it aircraft, with 90 per cent of its 279-strong fleet connected by the end of this year. Passengers will be told once on board whether their plane has connectivity.
The airline says the Wi-Fi is strong enough to stream music, video content and films, and can be purchased in-flight.
Cost: Prices start from £4.99 for browsing and £7.99 for streaming
Speed: Up to 0.61Mbps.
Virgin Atlantic offers Wi-Fi across its fleet but says the service may not be available “from time to time”, adding there is one A340 aircraft that does not have connectivity. Otherwise, different packages are available, from Wifi Light from £4.99 for 40MB of data, to £14.99 for 150MB of data (on 787s) or unlimited data (on A330s, A340s and 747s). On the latter aircraft, a messaging pass of £2.99 is available.
Cost: From £2.99 for messaging and £14.99 for streaming.
Speed: Up to 0.61Mbps.
The airline already has connectivity on its European flights but will be adding Wi-Fi to its long-haul services over the next few years. On its intercontinental services, two packages will be available, with the basic option, allowing browse the internet and social media and stay in contact with friends and family, free. The premium option, strong enough to stream music and video content, starts from $14.95/€12.95 for three hours.
Cost: Free for browsing; from €12.95 for streaming.
Speed: Up to 1.33Mbps.
Dubai’s airline affords passengers up to 20MB of data for free within two hours of logging in. Passengers in economy must then choose a plan option to continue to be connected, with prices varying by route. About two thirds of Emirates’ fleet offers the service, with all A380s connected and some of the 777s. The speed of the airlines’ Wi-Fi has been criticised as slow, but it is understood Emirates is investing in improving its speed on its new aircraft.
Cost: Free for two hours up to 20MB, and from around $9.99 (£7.78) for 150MB afterwards.
Qatar says that in-flight Wi-Fi is available on all of its A380, A350 and 787 aircraft, and some of its 777, A320 and As321 and A330 aircraft, which would cover most of the flights departing the UK.
Cost: Price plans vary.
The airline says the service is only available on selected aircraft, on which passengers can purchase Wi-Fi vouchers, from $4.95 (£3.85). First class passengers receive 90MB of complimentary data.
Cost: From £3.85
Speed: Up to 1.33Mbps.
Singapore says its in-flight Wi-Fi is available on its A350, A380, 777 and 787 aircraft and price plans vary. Business class customers receive 30MB of free data.
Cost: Price plans vary.
Speed: Up to 1.33Mpbs
The Australian airline currently only offers Wi-Fi on its domestic routes.
Easyjet does not offer Wi-Fi on any of its aircraft, thought it has been rumoured the budget airline has been looking into the service.
The Irish carrier has mooted in-flight Wi-Fi before but never follow through with its plans.