If you’ve ever traveled by air and utilized the plane’s WiFi feature, you may have wondered how WiFi works on an airplane. An increasing number of airlines are offering WiFi to their passengers, some for free and others for purchase.
Being asked to set your phone on “airplane mode” no longer needs to be an annoyance, as in-flight WiFi allows you to use your electronic devices with an internet connection just like you would on the ground, but with airplane mode engaged.
So, how do you get WiFi functionality at high speeds in an airtight cabin at 30,000 feet?
How Does WiFi Work on Planes?
To answer your question, let’s discuss how WiFi works on an airplane.
There are two ways to engage WiFi while in flight: Air-to-ground WiFi and then satellite-enabled WiFi (for areas an aircraft may pass over, like a large body of water, that do not have air-to-ground systems available).
Unfortunately, in-flight WiFi is more expensive and still not as fast or as reliable as WiFi on the ground, but technologies are constantly improving (e.g., Gogo’s 2Ku system).
An air-to-ground system functions just like it sounds. It is a ground-based system that functions in a way similar to that of a mobile data network for mobile phones: using towers and receivers (antennae). These air-to-ground towers send signals upward to the sky instead of outward/downward like a mobile phone tower does.
WiFi-enabled aircraft have antennae installed in order to receive signals from these towers, which then run through an onboard server. The server converts these signals and transmits them throughout the plane via a modem, thus providing in-flight narrowband and broadband WiFi for passengers. In other words, the plane becomes a flying internet hotspot.
These antennae are agile and able to adjust position quickly in order to account for the high velocity of the aircraft.
WiFi-enabled aircraft also feature special antennae that can receive signals from a network of orbiting satellites, which receive first signals from stations on the ground, and then are able to process them the way they do from air-to-ground WiFi systems.
Related: Does pocket WiFi work on a plane?
Is Airplane WiFi Available Over the Ocean?
If you’re wondering if you can get Wi-Fi on an aircraft while traveling over the ocean, you’re in luck. Airplanes can provide WiFi service when flying over oceans or other areas that may not have ground towers, as long as they have a satellite operating system installed.
This system works by ground units beaming signals to satellites circling in orbit, which can then transmit them to an aircraft while in flight.
How Do You Get WiFi on a Plane?
Accessing in-flight WiFi service usually requires simply turning your mobile phone’s airplane mode on, and then finding the plane’s WiFi network in your settings or web browser.
Note that in-flight WiFi is not always reliable due to a weakened signal, and the best you can get through some patches of airspace is narrowband WiFi (good for checking email, for example, but not as good as broadband for gaming or streaming movies).
In-flight WiFi technology is constantly improving, such as with Gogo’s 2Ku system, to be able to offer increasingly more reliable and faster WiFi service while flying.
Is There a Cost for Airplane WiFi?
Whether or not there is a charge for your WiFi services depends on the airline you’re flying and on what type of seat you’ve purchased. Southwest offers free WiFi for texting while in flight for all its passengers, but charges an $8 per day fee for in-flight internet access.
Other airlines may offer WiFi for free to First Class passengers but may charge other passengers for its use. Many airlines, such as American, offer monthly paid WiFi subscription packages for frequent fliers.
Is Plane WiFi Fast?
If you’re wondering whether or not plane WiFi is fast, in-flight WiFi service is not known for its speed or reliability. At least not yet. But on a positive note, the WiFi you can get while flying is constantly improving.
Can You Use a VPN With Airplane WiFi?
Can you use a Virtual Private Network (VPN), like this one, while using an airplane’s WiFi? Yes, you can use a VPN while in flight, but only if your service doesn’t provide limited site access.
Also, using a VPN while flying doesn’t entirely protect you from being hacked. While in flight, your VPN can momentarily cut out, leaving a way in for hackers.
This one by Cyber Ghost is great, or Private Internet Access has good customer ratings as well.
Both are worth checking out.
Is Airplane WiFi Secure and Safe?
Unfortunately, using in-flight WiFi is not considered secure or safe to date (the networks are open), so be careful about what you’re doing while on a plane’s network (i.e., you may not want to conduct sensitive business like banking while using an airline’s WiFi).
What Airlines Offer WiFi?
An increasing number of airlines are working to be able to offer WiFi service for their passengers.
The list of domestic airlines that already provide this service includes:
- Alaska Airlines
- American Airlines
- United Airlines
- Delta Airlines
- Airtran Airways (all flights)
- Virgin America (all flights)
Can you Use Cell Data on a Plane?
Yes, you can use cellular data while traveling on a plane. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and most major airlines have verified that there are no laws prohibiting travelers from using their phone data while in flight.
Why Does Airplane WiFi Slow Down or Drop?
Your WiFi accessibility while in flight is somewhat limited, which is why it’s difficult (or at least not consistently reliable) to be able to stream movies or games or to upload large files online. Fortunately increasingly improved technology is anticipated to be able to deliver more reliable and faster WiFi service while traveling in the air.
So, How Does WiFi Work on a Plane?
How are we able to get WiFi signals while traveling in a fast-moving aircraft? There is air-to-ground WiFi and then satellite-enabled WiFi for areas where air-to-ground may not be available, like while traveling over the ocean, for example. In-flight WiFi can be expensive and can still not provide the quality of service and reliability as WiFi service on the ground can, but fortunately, the technology is always improving.