The holiday season is coming, but this doesn’t mean Wi-Fi all the time. Even for a few hours’ flight, travellers from around the world have more and more difficulty to accept to be disconnected to their world – either real or virtual, especially when they are used to be connected 24/7.
If more and more carriers (train, coach, …) now allowed a great 4G LTE connection to their users and even start to offer Wi-Fi connection, the question is more complicated for the airlines companies.
Flight durations can sometimes exceed 24 hours, and some passengers will find the time passed by so slowly without any Wi-Fi available!
For many years, airlines stated that the internet access during flights was strictly impossible. They explained that technical problems are too complicated, costs are too high and even it could be dangerous for users! However, given the high demand, some airlines companies started few years ago to reconsider their opinion, thinking about the best way to offer an economically viable connection which would meet the passenger’s needs.
Two solutions for Wi-Fi in an aircraft
Following some successful technical tests, some big companies have implemented some Wi-Fi connection systems in their aircrafts.
There are two solutions, each one can be use by itself or combined with the other for greater efficiency.
The first one is to use the terrestrial antennas already in place for mobile phones, that we can find at regular intervals on all the Earth’s surface. The planes flying in these antenna’s coverage area can use of the telecom operators’ network.
In order to do tat, a specific equipment must be installed inside the plane, enabling the conversion of the 4G/3G signal into Wi-Fi.
However, all the antennas haven’t a power to reach the plane at airplane altitude (often over 10 000 meters).
Some airlines themselves have also deployed some terrestrial antennas more oriented toward the sky, which are only dedicated to planes and emit waves over until 80km.
If this solution has a lower cost than the second option, they still have a major drawback. Indeed, they only work above land, therefore this solution is only valid for domestic flights, for short and medium haul flights.
The second option consist to use satellites, which can provide Wi-fi network wherever the aircraft localization – either it is above land or sea. This option, more expensive and more complicated to implement, ensures however the best network coverage.
Whatever the technology, they both have a significant cost and companies have to be very careful about potential return on investment. Indeed, equipping a plane with a Wi-Fi system costs 100 000 US dollars for the terrestrial solution, and almost 500 000 US dollars for the satellites option. And these amounts don’t include the cost of the aircraft grounding during the installation.
… For consumers who are not ready yet
The latest tests from companies as Lufthansa, show that if customers consider Wi-Fi in plane as a necessary step forward, they are not all prepared to pay for this service. Thus, during the tests period, only a few passengers have added this option during their flight booking. It would appear that Wi-Fi in plane will in future be more useful and valuable by passengers for longer flights.
As the percentage of potential clients is lower than expected, the return on investments of Wi-Fi on board will take more than 20 years for airlines.
20 years seem like a long time, but to understand these airlines willingness, we must look beyond financial aspect. Since few years, the airlines competition increases significantly due to the strong growth of low cost airlines. Only the biggest and long-established airlines can afford the investment in a Wi-Fi system because they are looking for long-term added-value and differentiation.
Which rates for which airline company?
Up to now, Emirates and Norwegian are the only two airlines who offer a free Wi-Fi connection to their passengers whatever their travel class. Aer Lingus and Turkish Airlines also offer a free Wi-Fi, but only for their business class passengers.
Other airlines set similar and affordable prices, which usually vary according to the flight time. American Airlines offers Wi-Fi on board for 12$ (11€) for 2 hours, and 19$ (17 €) for the entire flight time, or 14$ (13 €) for a day. British Airways’ rates are between 8 £ (10 €) for 1 hour and 15 £ (20 €) for one day. For Lufthansa, Wi-Fi rates are 9€ per hour and 17€ per day.
Some airlines also offer pricing according the number of data used. For example, the Portuguese company Tap Portugal offers 4MB for 6€.
It’s only a question of time before all long-haul airlines offer this service to their passengers. However, Wi-Fi on board will remain a slow internet connection because of technical limitations. The current solution only allows a basic usage (internet surfing and emails), so passengers can’t expect to download huge files or watch online movies!