In-flight Wi-Fi has come a long way since airlines first started offering passengers a way to connect to the internet.
But as we’re all used to ridiculously fast speeds on the ground, we (perhaps naively) expect the same when we’re flying too.
Unfortunately, this is rarely possible for a number of reasons.
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6 Reasons Why In-Flight Wi-Fi is So Slow
1. Sharing Signals
It’s fairly common for airlines to share signals between them, which will inevitably slow down speeds.
This is similar to how when you’re connected at home and everyone in your household uses the internet at the same time, speeds slow down.
2. Air to Ground Technology
Wi-Fi on a plane works in different ways, one of which is by the airline using air to ground technology to provide a connection.
Not only does this mean that speeds can be impacted, but your connection can even completely cut out altogether.
This is a big problem when flying over oceans, which is why many airlines use satellite based technology to provide Wi-Fi to passengers.
If the airline uses a satellite based internet connection, latency is inevitable due to the distance between the satellites, the plane, and the Earth.
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.
While this means that plane Wi-Fi can be good enough to stream, provided the speed is fast enough, for making phone calls or online gaming, it isn’t.
Whether you’re 35,000 feet in the sky or at home, internet providers love to throttle your connection.
This is done by airlines, so you won’t use too much data.
5. Bad Weather
If the weather when you’re flying is bad, this can affect your Wi-Fi speeds and connectivity due to interference.
Turbulence, rain, and snow can all have an impact on speeds and connectivity.
6. Encryption Technology
Due to the widespread use of encryption technology, the old tricks used to reduce load times by rendering elements on a page in a lower resolution no longer work.
This is because it’s no longer possible to tell what type of data is coming through.
In-Flight Wi-Fi Speeds
You can expect in-flight Wi-Fi to be slower compared to your speeds on the ground. But in-flight Wi-Fi won’t always be slow.
Just like when you’re connected on the ground, speeds can vary when you’re 35,000 feet in the air, too.
Much of this depends on whether the airline uses ground-based cell towers or satellite systems to provide a connection.
In reality, most airlines will use both depending on the aircraft’s location – i.e. ground-based cell towers when flying at low altitudes, and satellite systems when not.
This is how you are able to connect to Wi-Fi over the ocean.
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.
How Much In-Flight Wi-Fi Costs
- Alaska Airlines: Prices range from $1.95 to $49.95
- American Airlines: Prices start at $10, but can reach $35 on international routes.
- Delta: There is a North America day pass that costs $16, and a Global day pass that costs $28.
- Southwest: Southwest give you all-day access for $8, though it is free for A-List Preferred Members.
- United: Prices vary from flight to flight, but monthly plans at $49.95 for North and Central America and $69.95 for international flights are available.
Do Any Airlines Offer Free Wi-Fi?
If you choose the right airline, you might not have to pay for Wi-Fi at all.
Unfortunately, this is more the case outside the U.S., with international airlines more likely to provide Wi-Fi to their passengers for free.
In the U.S., JetBlue is the exception, as they 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.
Delta, Alsaka Airlines, and United will allow you to send and receive messages for free through WhatsApp and iMessage, but will charge for everything else.
In-Flight Wi-Fi Isn’t Secure
In-flight Wi-Fi isn’t secure – like at all.
There was a popular story going round where a reporter had his emails hacked during the flight by a fellow passenger.
When you connect to Wi-Fi on a plane, it is effectively as secure as connecting to a public network on the ground.
So if you connect to Wi-Fi in-flight, make sure that you just stick to streaming and browsing instead of doing anything that would put your personal data at risk.
Having said, some airlines will allow you to connect to a VPN, though others will block their usage.
Keep in mind that if your VPN drops during the flight, you may unknowingly leave your data vulnerable to hackers, too.
Helen Krasner holds a PPL(A), with 15 years experience flying fixed-wing aircraft; a PPL(H), with 13 years experience flying helicopters; and a CPL(H), Helicopter Instructor Rating, with 12 years working as a helicopter instructor.
Helen is an accomplished aviation writer with 12 years of experience, having authored several books and published numerous articles while also serving as the Editor of the BWPA (British Women Pilots Association) newsletter, with her excellent work having been recognized with her nomination of the “Aviation Journalist of the Year” award.
Helen has won the “Dawn to Dusk” International Flying Competition, along with the best all-female competitors, three times with her copilot.