Airplane Wi-Fi: Everything You Need To Know To Stay Connected on Your Flight

what is airplane wi-fi

The classic film 'Back to the Future' made some predictions about the future possibilities of technology, including 3D movies (check), video calls (check), and hoverboards (anxiously waiting). What it didn't predict was that mid-flight over the Atlantic, we could be simultaneously calling our mom, reading work emails, and watching the latest dance craze on TikTok. Just a short few years ago, airplane Wi-Fi wasn't even conceivable, but now, it's all the rage. 

In fact, a 2021 survey found that 82% of the people who responded said they would become a repeat flyer with an airline if they had a good Wi-Fi experience. Airlines are listening, with many adopting free in-flight Wi-Fi to better compete with other airlines. 

But how is this magic of connectivity possible while over 30,000ft in the air? And why do you need to use airplane mode the moment the wheels leave the tarmac? Keep reading, and we'll tell you.

In this article:

airplane wingUnsplash

What Is Airplane Wi-Fi?

Airplane Wi-Fi, also known as in-flight Wi-Fi, is a wireless internet service provided on commercial airplanes to allow passengers to access the internet while flying. It allows passengers to connect their Wi-Fi-enabled devices — like their smartphones or laptops — to the internet. This means passengers can watch movies, browse websites, catch up on work, and send messages, all while in the air. Pretty cool, if you ask us.

Wi-Fi on Airplanes: How Does It Work?

Staying connected while flying over the ocean isn't all that different from staying connected on the ground. It's just a little bit trickier at higher speeds and higher altitudes. 

Let's break down how airplane Wi-Fi works.

Aircraft Antenna

Airplanes have a special antenna that's designed to send and receive data signals. This antenna is usually located on the top of the airplane's fuselage and connects with either ground-based cellular towers or satellites.

Satellite-Based Wi-Fi

With satellite-based Wi-Fi, the plane's antenna communicates with satellites high above Earth. These satellites relay data between the aircraft and ground stations. So, when a passenger wants to send an email, that data request goes from the airplane to the satellite and back. Ta-da! You've got internet access.

Air-to-Ground Wi-Fi

With air-to-ground Wi-Fi, the antenna connects to ground-based cellular towers. These are positioned, you guessed it, on the ground. As the airplane moves, its antenna connects to the nearest tower, just like your smartphone connects to a cell tower.

On-board Hardware

Inside the plane, there's on-board hardware — kind of like that router you have to keep resetting at home — that processes and distributes the internet to you. This hardware has routers and access points that create a Wi-Fi network on the airplane.

Passenger Wi-Fi Enabled Devices

This is where you come in. You can access the in-flight Wi-Fi network using your Wi-Fi-enabled devices. They connect to the on-board Wi-Fi network just like they would with any other Wi-Fi hotspot.

Using the In-Flight Internet

With the 'what' of airplane Wi-Fi covered, let's talk about the 'how'. If you want to join the in-flight Wi-Fi, you'll need to request to join and then authenticate yourself — usually answering a couple of short questions like your name and email address. In other words, you won't just connect automatically, like at your favorite coffee shop. You may even have to pay a small fee.

One of the things you may want to check out before you book that flight is whether in-flight internet is available and what the cost is. Some airlines are offering free internet as a way to pull in customers, though many airlines are still charging for access. It's no fun to assume you'll be able to finally turn on your out-of-office midflight, only to find it's not available or that it'll cost you extra. 

Bonus tip: If you have a travel credit card connected to a certain airline or an airline loyalty membership, see if they offer free Wi-Fi as a bonus for being a loyal customer.

And there you have it: on-board internet access achieved.

airplane passengersUnsplash

Are There Alternatives to Airplane Wi-Fi?

The truth is, not really.

Many airplanes do offer in-flight entertainment so you can watch their pre-programmed movies or shows, and several streaming services allow you to pre-download shows before your trip. But if you want to send emails or message with friends, you're going to need to connect to the Wi-Fi on board.

Luckily, connecting to the airplane Wi-Fi is a breeze — and sometimes that $8 to get online is worth the expense.

Stay Connected With an eSIM From Airalo

You've been relaxing on your flight, binge-watching your favorite show when the pilot announces that you are landing. All good, except you are disconnected from the internet and you need to know how the last episode ends — and you should probably video call your Mom to let her know you landed safely.

Once you leave the flight, you'll need a new way to stay connected — and nobody wants to pay for hefty roaming fees. What’s a traveler to do? That’s where we come in. Install an eSIM from Airalo to easily connect to the internet without skipping a beat. We keep you connected long after you lose airplane Wi-Fi.

Airplane Wi-Fi FAQs

What is Airplane Wi-Fi?

Airplane Wi-Fi is a wireless internet connection that you can use while on a plane. It connects you to the internet so you can answer emails, watch movies, videos, and TV shows, and message with friends. 

Do Airlines Charge for Wi-Fi?

Many airlines do still charge for Wi-Fi on their airplanes, but as the demand for free Wi-Fi rises, many are including it as a benefit for flying with them.

Can’t I Just Use My Phone Data on An Airplane?

The short answer is, no. The longer answer is that the signal from wireless devices creates electromagnetic interference for the airplane and can mess with some of the instruments the pilots need to fly the plane. And nobody wants that.

What is Airplane Mode, and why do I need to use it on board?

Airplane mode is a way to disable all of the wireless and cellular signals that can interfere with airplanes. It's an easy way to make sure that you don't forget to turn any settings off by doing it all at once with the press of a button. Everyone should be using airplane mode on board to not disrupt the tools pilots use to navigate the skies.

Ready to try eSIMs and change the way you stay connected?

Download the Airalo app to purchase, manage, and top up your eSIMs anytime, anywhere!

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