Wifi on international flights: Present and future


Liftoff of a Proton-M rocket carrying the Intelsat F-2 satellite from Baikonur
Liftoff of a Proton-M rocket carrying the Intelsat F-2 satellite from Baikonur

Recently American Airlines reminded the investor community that it was investing heavily in its product offering, including fitting its international fleet with wifi connectivity. Of course, there is good and bad in that announcement. The good is that more connectivity is coming in the not-too-distant future. The bad is that it reminds us just how far behind the competition American is. So, what do the numbers for wifi on international flights look like as of the end of January 2015?

United Airlines leads the pack with about 40% of its long-haul fleet fitted for wifi on international flights including all aircraft on at least three sub-fleets (747-400, sCO 777-200 & 787-9). Delta Air Lines is not too far behind with just under 30% of the fleet completed (747-400 fleet is 100%). Delta also has far fewer planes which need fitting with the international kit than either United or American Airlines do. American brings up the rear with only about 10% of the fleet fitted (100% of 777-300ER & 787s completed).

United Airlines 777-200ER with Panasonic Ku-band WiFi Radome
United Airlines 777-200ER with Panasonic Ku-band WiFi Radome

Of course, United’s lead on the international front is somewhat tempered by its lag in fitting the domestic fleet. Fortunately the carrier is nearing the end of its efforts to close that gap. It does still trail both Delta and American but it is getting the mainline and 70-seat RJ fleet done at a reasonable pace these days; much like the international fleet it is expected that the domestic fleet will be completed by mid-2015. And United’s “domestic” Airbus planes have a satellite-based system which does work for the regional international trips those planes occasionally take. The 737s also feature a satellite-based solution but is it limited to roughly CONUS coverage until 2016 when ViaSat-2 launches, expanding coverage to the Caribbean and the northern edge of South America.

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It is worth noting that Gogo reports plans for ~500 aircraft to be fitted in 2015. Many of those will be United and American RJs but a decent chunk (~100) should be Delta‘s international aircraft. Gogo has the necessary STCs to fit all of Delta’s long-haul planes and has previously announced that it expects completion of the fleet connectivity fitting at some point in 2016. Similarly, United Airlines has stated it expects to have the international installations mostly complete by mid-2015; the only uncertainty is the 11 initial 787-8 deliveries which will need to be retrofit. United is running multiple install lines for each aircraft type right now, completing the bulk of its installs during the winter where fleet utilization is lower. American has talked about retrofits to add wifi on international flights but has not released much in the way of hard data regarding timing for the installation on its long-haul fleet. Indications are that it will take years, not months to complete.

Liftoff of a Proton-M rocket carrying the Intelsat F-2 satellite from Baikonur
Liftoff of a Proton-M rocket carrying the Intelsat F-2 satellite from Baikonur

While it does not affect the three US carriers as much – none of the three have committed to the service – Inmarsat successfully launched the F-2 satellite earlier this month. This is the second of three satellites needed to support high speed, Ka-band connectivity with a global footprint. The F-2 satellite covers the Americas and the Atlantic ocean; the F-1 satellite which entered service last July covers Europe, Africa and parts of Asia. The final piece of the constellation will launch later this spring, at which point the company will begin connecting commercial airline customers to the system and providing seamless global connectivity.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

9 Comments

  1. I just got back from a trip to Dubai and India. I flew JFK-DXB (EK204/EK203) on an A380 both ways (different equipment on outbound vs. return). I was excited to be able to use EK’s internet service during this long flight but found the service virtually useless. While it technically did work at a few points, it timed out about 90% of the time and made for an incredible frustrating experience.

    I paid $1 for 100MB of service which is a great deal to be sure, but never came close to that allotment since I could barely even get a web page loaded most of the time. I gladly would have paid significantly more had the service actually functioned. I guess now I know why they only charge $1 for it. Had I paid $30 for it, I would definitely disputed the charge, but they’ve got my $1 since it’s not worth my time to fight with them about it for the 3 emails I was actually able to read during my 14 hour trip. 🙁

    Oh, and before anyone comments that it’s probably because A380’s hold a bazillion pax, they have a status page where it shows how many people are connected, and at one point it was only 15 and it was still totally abysmal.

    Hopefully the other carriers have better offerings, because if EK’s system is emblematic of the state of international wifi, things are in a pretty sad state.

    1. Unfortunately a big part of the problem with the systems is the size of the pipe, and that is defined mostly by which type of satellite connection is being used. While Ku-band is currently dominating the market but the Emirates aircraft use L-band which is much slower and more expensive. In many ways the “unlimited” access option is a marketing ploy because, as you note, the service you’re getting is barely functional.

  2. I was on AA 136 today LAX to LHR. American’s wifi on the 777 was perfect. Better than most of the domestic flights with GoGo. At $19 for 10 hours, it’s a relatively good deal.

  3. I just wish they spent more money on bigger TVs and better content. If I’m stuck on an aircraft for 10 hours, it’s much more important to have better entertainment than a better tether to work.

    1. @Good Service On that front, Emirates is stellar. The screens (even in coach) are huge and there’s like 500 channels of just about anything you could ever want available.

    2. I agree the content sucks. Screen size in business isn’t a problem for me. I do prefer faster wifi to content. If the wifi is fast you have unlimited content at your disposal.

  4. Our family is traveling to Hawaii from Atlanta this summer. A non-stop flight is available on a Delta 747-400 which we are excited about. However wifi for the day we are traveling is important. While you state in your article all Delta 747-400 have been completed that information is not reflected in the flight amenities. Can you offer any additional info for me to trust it will be available if I book that flight?

    1. The 744s are all fitted so you should be good to go, assuming there is not an aircraft swap along the way. Not sure why Delta isn’t showing that in its flight details but it should be there.

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