How Does Airplanes Wi-Fi Operate?

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By Miro Stoichev

Progress has already advanced to the point where people can stay connected no matter where they are today, how we explaind already in our articel for Wi-Fi in the cars. Wi-Fi is one of the many services offered by airlines. Verifying its availability prior to the flight is crucial.

How does an airplane’s Internet operate?

How does an airplane's Internet operate

Airliners should be equipped with the necessary technology to allow their passengers to access the World Wide Web. Waves of wireless communication are dispersed throughout the cabin thanks to it.

On an airplane, there are two ways to access the Internet. The aircraft must simultaneously ascend to a minimum altitude of three kilometers. It is not permitted to use mobile devices closer to the ground.

Air to Earth

This phrase means “From the air to the ground” when taken literally. The airplane receives signals from towers pointing upward on the surface of the globe. An antenna at the bottom of the aircraft receives the data and “sends” it to a modem, which then distributes the connection throughout the cabin.

Using the towers of current cellular operators is one of this method’s advantages. However, it also has a major drawback: since there are no towers in the seas or oceans, the connection is lost if the aircraft flies over the water’s surface.

In North America, the biggest Air-to-Ground network is in operation. There, it’s referred to as AirCell or GoGo. It takes about 200 stations to supply Internet to aircraft passing over the USA and Canada.

Internet via satellite

Internet via satellite

Here, the signal originates from a satellite circling the earth. Data is transmitted from ground stations to the satellite, which then sends it to the aircraft. Compared to ground stations, the signal transmission distance and coverage area are significantly larger.

Several satellite service providers let you access the Internet while in flight. There are various uses for satellites and frequency ranges. The signal strength increases and the antenna’s size decreases with increasing frequency. In this instance, everyone using the Internet during the flight gets the same speed.

This method’s big coverage area and ability to operate over water are its advantages. Still, it’s important to consider the drawbacks:

  • High cost of using Wi-Fi
  • Low transmission speed, which in practice only reaches 25 Mbit/s and is shared by all airline passengers

How can I utilize the airplane’s Wi-Fi?

Make sure the chosen airline’s operators are aware of this by asking them about the availability of wi-fi on board. Not every airline offers internet access these days.



Guidelines for establishing a Wi-Fi connection inside the aircraft:

  • switch the device to “air” mode or turn off cellular communication
  • turn on wifi on your laptop, tablet, or smartphone
  • choose the network of your airline
  • open a network browser
  • choose an appropriate tariff plan for using the service

If everything is done correctly, your device’s monitor will display the company’s main page. You can check your account and become acquainted with the frequently asked questions and answers there. Once you’ve attained a specific altitude, you can use the service.


Before landing, pay for the chance to use the service right away. Register your device on the aircraft’s special equipment to accomplish this. Passengers are identified by their seat in the aircraft during this automated process.

According to the invoice, the passenger’s bank card is charged for the amount of the wi-fi usage after it is deactivated. It details the chosen tariff plan, the amount of megabytes used, and the amount of time spent online.

Remember that when purchasing an airline ticket, extra services (like the Internet) are not covered by the cost of the ticket. Additionally, the only way to pay for Wi-Fi use is cashless.

The cost of wifi varies across all airlines. Typically, the service charge is computed for every hour or day of the flight. Prior to your trip, familiarize yourself with the Internet tariffs or select a practical option for Network connection.

Viewing the status of your account

Use the “status monitor” on the airline’s main page to view your account information and traffic consumption. The “monitor” is available to you for use for the duration of your network connection.

Connection quality and speed

The number of passengers sharing Wi-Fi in the aircraft cabin as well as the tariff chosen will determine the connection and data transfer speed. Ku-band (short range) is used by many carriers and can maintain a very stable connection with up to 12 Mbps per passenger during the flight.

50 Mbps is the maximum standard speed. It can, however, be much lower given the number of passengers wishing to use the Net access, allowing it to be used exclusively for surfing.

Additionally, there might be a signal stability issue that goes away when the aircraft leaves the tower’s coverage area. After a predetermined amount of time, automatic reconnection takes place.

Restrictions and limitations

There are certain limitations when using wi-fi on an aircraft, which vary based on the tariff package chosen and the terms and conditions of Internet usage for each specific airline:

  • Traffic – each tariff plan indicates the amount of available megabytes for use
  • Speed – it depends on the equipment installed on board and the number of passengers using the internet
  • Messengers: Some passengers may not have access to Viber, WhatsApp, or Skype while on the “air” network. This is done to prevent video calls or conversations from disturbing other passengers
  • Video resources and music: Some passengers may also have these disabled to prevent disruptions

Additional details

Take the following steps prior to boarding in order to save money and make the most of the paid Internet service on the aircraft:

  • Turn on “Airplane” mode
  • Disable all automatic updates for installed apps and programs on your device to save traffic
  • Turn off cloud storage service synchronization (Google Drive, Dropbox)
  • Avoid using video calls or watching video clips as this could cause the device to freeze and quickly use up its megabytes

Install and configure a traffic control program on your device before the flight (e.g. firewall).

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