If you’ve ever been on a flight and connected to the plane’s Wi-Fi, you might be wondering how this was even possible.
After all, you’re cruising at 35,000 feet, so how can you connect to the internet?
Wi-Fi on planes work either through the use of special ground-based cell towers or satellites.
Table of Contents
- 1 Ground-Based Cell Towers
- 2 Satellites
- 3 Airplane Wi-Fi Still Works Over the Ocean
- 4 Why Airplane Wi-Fi Sometimes Drops or Slows Down
- 5 Is Airplane Wi-Fi Free?
- 6 Airplane Wi-Fi isn’t Secure
- 7 Airplane Wi-Fi Can Be Fast
- 8 Can You Use a VPN When Connected?
- 9 Airlines that Offer Wi-Fi
- 10 Can You Use Data on a Plane?
Ground-Based Cell Towers
The first airlines to offer Wi-Fi on flights used ground-based cell towers to connect to the internet – and it is still used today.
Cell towers on the ground project their wireless services toward the sky so planes flying overhead can connect.
Planes install antennas on the base of the aircraft fuselage to connect to the signal from the ground, which can then be spread throughout the plane through a number of Wi-Fi access points on the plane.
Pointing the coverage upwards instead of towards the ground allow airlines towers to cover a larger area, which is vital considering the speed that planes fly.
Planes can connect to satellite powered Wi-Fi through the use of an antenna that is mounted on top of the plane.
The main benefit of using satellites to connect to the internet, besides providing a faster Wi-Fi service, is that it allows planes to connect to the internet over the ocean.
There are several companies that provide satellite powered Wi-Fi to airlines, including Gogo, ViaSat and Thales.
Airplane Wi-Fi Still Works Over the Ocean
Airplane Wi-Fi only works over the ocean if the airline is using a satellite-powered provider.
If the airline uses ground-based cell towers – i.e. Air-to-Ground (ATG) Wi-Fi – you won’t be able to connect to Wi-Fi over the ocean.
Fortunately, as most airlines today use satellites for Wi-Fi connectivity during long-haul international travel, you should have no problem connecting to Wi-Fi over the ocean.
Why Airplane Wi-Fi Sometimes Drops or Slows Down
There are several reasons why airplane a plane’s Wi-Fi is slow and can even drop.
- Sharing Signals
It’s quite common for airlines to share signals, which can be especially problematic if airlines use an ATG network to provide Wi-Fi compared to a satellite network.
- Encryption Technology
Encryption technology used today means that the tricks to reduce load times by rendering things like images in lower resolution is no longer possible, as it is no longer possible to tell what type of data is coming through.
- Bad Weather
Bad weather, such as rain and snow, can have an impact on Wi-Fi speeds and connectivity through interference.
- Air to Ground Technology
As air to ground technology doesn’t work over oceans, if the airline uses this form of technology to deliver Wi-Fi to passengers, it will inevitably cut out when no signal is available.
Due to the distance between satellites, the plane, and the earth, latency is inevitable.
After all, the signal for a satellite internet connection must travel from the earth to a satellite over 20,000 miles in the sky, and then back down to the plane.
This can take half a second, which may be good enough for surfing the internet and even streaming, but not so much for gaming if you bring your Nintendo Switch on a plane, or voice calls.
Airlines are known to throttle their Wi-Fi services – i.e. intentional slowing of the internet – in order to prevent passengers from using too much data.
Is Airplane Wi-Fi Free?
Whether Wi-Fi on a plane is free or not depends on the airline, and can also vary depending on if you’re flying domestic or internationally.
Generally, the longer the flight and if you’re flying internationally, you are more likely to receive free Wi-Fi on a plane, though this is more of a worldwide phenomenon than in the U.S.
As it stands, in the U.S., only JetBlue offer free in-flight Wi-Fi on all their flights despite the airline being a low-cost carrier.
Hawaiian Airlines have announced planes to use Elon Musk’s SpaceX’s Starlink satellite service to provide free Wi-Fi on flights in the near future.
Some airlines like Delta and United allow passengers to send and receive messages for free through WhatsApp and iMessage, but will charge for all other internet-based services.
Airplane Wi-Fi isn’t Secure
Airplane Wi-Fi isn’t very secure at all and isn’t any more private than other public Wi-Fi networks.
The caveat is that if someone wants to steal your data, they have to be on the same flight too.
In fact, there was a story of how a reporter’s emails were hacked on a flight by a fellow passenger onboard, proving airplane Wi-Fi’s vulnerability.
Airplane Wi-Fi Can Be Fast
Just like Wi-Fi speeds on the ground, the speed of plane Wi-Fi can vary.
Satellite based providers can provide planes with Wi-Fi speeds of up to 80 Mbps, though around 12-15 Mbps is more common, whereas ground-based cell towers can deliver speeds of up to 10 Mbps to passengers.
Can You Use a VPN When Connected?
In some instances, it is possible to use a VPN when connecting to airplane Wi-Fi, which can offer you an additional layer of security, though some airlines may block VPN providers.
Your VPN can also drop during a flight, though, which can leave your data vulnerable to hackers.
Airlines that Offer Wi-Fi
In the U.S., several of the major airlines, including Delta, Southwest, United, American Airlines, and JetBlue offer Wi-Fi on many of their domestic and international flights.
Allegiant Air and Frontier do not provide any Wi-Fi service on any of their flights.
Can You Use Data on a Plane?
As you are required to turn on airplane mode for every flight you take, you can’t use data on a plane.
This is because if your phone isn’t put into airplane mode, it will attempt to connect to every cell tower on the ground that the plane passes, which can confuse networks, and can also interfere with an aircraft’s communication and navigation systems.
Ella Dunham, a Freelance Travel Journalist and Marketing Manager, boasts an impressive career spanning eight years in the travel and tourism sectors.
Honored as one of "30 Under 30" by TTG Media (the world’s very first weekly travel trade newspaper), a "Tour Operator Travel Guru" and "Legend Award" winner, Ella is also a Fellow of the Institute of Travel, a Member of the Association of Women Travel Executives, has completed over 250 travel modules, and hosts travel-focused segments on national radio shows where she provides insights on travel regulations and destinations.
Ella has visited over 40 countries (with 10 more planned this year).