Inflight Internet: Everything You Need To Know

Scrolling on social media and flicking through digital newspapers at 36,000 ft – who would have thought it? In-flight internet these days is now more accessible than ever before. So, where did it all begin? Which airlines have it now? And why can’t we live without it?

BA 747 take-off
Which airlines have the best inflight internet? Photo: Getty Images

The world’s first in-flight WiFi

Though WiFi onboard aircraft is quite commonplace, it does sometimes seem like a newfangled realm. Many of us are used to settling down with a film on leisure flights and putting our phones to rest on flight mode. For a time, it seemed that only business travelers were the ones who needed to get online.

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However, despite aircraft configuration giving us a welcome chance to disconnect, there is little incentive to shut off from the outside world on flights nowadays.

The concept of having internet on airplanes was developed nearly 20 years ago. Connexion by Boeing was the very first inflight internet provider with Lufthansa and British Airways being the first to test it out. Having gained approval from the Federal Communications Commission in the US to operate the service, Boeing’s internet was first used on 747 flights operated by BA and Lufthansa in 2003.

Lufthansa 747s at Frankfurt
Lufthansa’s 747s were one of the first to debut inflight internet. Photo: Getty Images

However, the service was nothing like it is today. It was relatively rudimentary and did not include any TV streaming services. Nevertheless, it was a technological breakthrough.

How does inflight internet work?

To make inflight internet possible, Boeing used both ground and satellite systems. These are the only ways for airlines to run their internet, and both are in circulation today.

The ground system is perhaps the more basic of the two. Essentially, an aircraft is turned into a WiFi hotspot. It is fitted with an antenna at the bottom of the fuselage. As the plane cruises through the sky, the antenna searches for the most viable transmitter. As it continues to move, it disconnects and reattaches to give the best possible connection onboard.

Gogo 2Ku antenna
Example of a Gogo top-mounted 2Ku antenna. Photo: Gogo

The only issue with this method of internet delivery is that it doesn’t work over water. Crossing the Atlantic Ocean, for example, passengers would be disconnected from streaming and messaging services for a large portion of their journey. For that reason, airlines also use satellites.

To connect to orbiting satellites, aircraft must be fitted with an antenna on the top of the plane. This antenna connects with the closest satellite, which passes information between the aircraft and the ground. The router on the aircraft distributes the signal throughout the cabin. Infrastructure for this type of transmission is common, since satellites are also used for TV signals and forecasting the weather.

Why is inflight internet so important?

We’ve come a long way since the first inflight internet, Connexion by Boeing. The more sophisticated that inflight internet gets, the more we become dependant on its speed and reliability.

iPad United Airlines
The more we rely on onboard WiFi, the more airlines provide it. Photo: United Airlines

For this reason, many airlines have invested in the best internet infrastructures for their customers. Once upon a time, airlines that had internet were seen as top competition. However, these days, many airlines have some form of WiFi service. So, how do airlines distinguish themselves? By the quality of their internet.

Investing in the best, most cost-effective, and most reliable internet provider means airlines can offer a more attractive proposal to their customers. It keeps them as a top choice when internet matters to the customer. And therefore, when airlines can deliver on their internet promises, they get better customer satisfaction.

As important as it is for airlines to offer internet in this day and age, it is also important that passengers have access to it. Taking a flight can now be seen as a seamless extension of everyday life. For better, or for worse, it offers uninterrupted efficiency.

So, if it’s so important, why isn’t it free?

woman with ipad, Lufthansa
Why do we have to pay for inflight internet? Photo: Lufthansa

Not all inflight internet is free

We’re now quite used to walking into shops, cafes, and restaurants and not having to pay to use someone else’s WiFi. However, that’s not true on airplanes. Some airlines do offer free internet but only in some instances. For example, Delta Air Lines provides free instant messaging on iMessage and WhatsApp, but all other internet services must be paid for. Why is that?

Well, there might be several reasons for this. For one, fitting an antenna and working with an internet provider costs airlines money. It’s an investment that benefits the customer but is not necessarily essential for their journey. After all, n airline’s area of expertise is in air travel, not entertainment.

Additionally, though passengers could continue to connect themselves to the internet on their flight, not all of them want to. Flying still represents a relaxed space where replying to work emails or checking in with friends some 30,000ft below is not paramount at all times. It makes economic sense that airlines should charge those who really can’t live without the internet during their flight.

Woman uses Gogo internet
Should passengers have to pay to use WiFi? Photo: Gogo

Which airlines offer the best inflight internet?

One of the best airline internet providers out there is largely reputed to be Gogo. The Chicago-based company offers in-flight broadband to airlines like United, Virgin Atlantic, Cathay Pacific, and British Airways.

Its latest 2Ku product is thought to be one of the leaders in the industry. The 2Ku antenna is streamlined in design, meaning it fits aircraft with minimal drag. In terms of operational performance, Gogo 2Ku offers “industry-leading speeds and superior performance around the globe while significantly reducing costs.”

However, Gogo recently it has sold its commercial aviation business to satellite company Intelsat. It remains to be seen if this is a positive step.

How do you think inflight internet has changed over the years? Is there more that needs to be done? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.