Everything you need to know about Airplane In-flight Wi-Fi

RapidVPN/ May 16, 2019/ Blog/

Internet access has become an indispensable part of our lives that it is almost unthinkable that we can not access it wherever we are. But what if we travel by plane and find ourselves at 30,000 feet? It can be quite frustrating when you need to switch your devices off on airplanes especially on long flights. The good news is that more and more airlines are now offering in-flight wireless internet access so you can check your email, surf the web or use it for entertainment. Here is how Wi-Fi works on an airplane.

Planes have antennas allowing them to pick up signals from one of two operating systems for Wi-Fi: ground stations or satellites. For connection with ground stations, the plane uses the antennas located in the underside of the aircraft fuselage. As it travels, aircraft simply connects to the nearest transmitter on a rolling basis. The airplane becomes a hotspot, so passengers can connect to the internet and send emails, make calls, and even stream movies. The major downside to ground station in-flight Wi-Fi is that this system can’t work when the plane crosses over the ocean or mountainous terrain and that is where airplane use satellite.

Satellite Wi-Fi uses a network of orbiting satellites to allow connection. The aircraft connects to the satellite using antennas installed on the top of the aircraft fuselage. The plane uses whichever satellite is nearest as it travels. In-flight Wi-Fi using communication satellites is an improved service that offers increased coverage and speeds.

Nearly all domestic and international American Airlines flights have Wi-Fi. It is a paid service that you can purchase onboard for both domestic and international flights. In-flight Wi-Fi is cheaper if you buy it before you board your flight. American Airlines offers pre-flight Wi-Fi packages only for domestic but not international travel. If you buy in advance, an all-day pass costs $16, if purchased on board two hours costs $12 and $19 for the length of a single flight. Passes bought in advance are good for 12 months from the date of their purchase.

Wireless service typically doesn’t work at all over the ocean so you can end up with poor connection and a drained battery as your device tries and fails to connect. In-flight Wi-Fi speeds  depend on which provider and service are used and whether the airplane is connected to a satellite or ground-based towers. According to Speedtest, the average broadband connection in the US had a download speed of 12.03MB/s and an upload speed of 4.11MB/s.

Fortunately, the airline plans to have speedier, satellite-based Wi-Fi on its entire fleet of narrow-body jets by the end of 2019. American Airlines is upgrading its Wi-Fi to Gogo’s (one of the largest in-flight Wi-Fi providers) new 2Ku system which is capable of delivering up to 70 megabytes that is faster than average connection on land.

Some airlines have begun offering free access to popular social media apps like Facebook Messenger, iMessage, and WhatsApp. Also, you be able to watch movies, television shows, and live TV from your personal devices for free. Only travelers who want to send e-mails and surf the web will have to purchase a Wi-Fi package.

In-flight Wi-Fi services are very similar to the public Wi-Fi available at malls, coffee shops, and other public places. WiFi networks that airlines provide in-flight are not encrypted and not password protected so your private data are easily accessible to hackers. Malware and viruses could damage your device through the public network and provide an opportunity for a malicious attacker. Leading in-flight internet and entertainment provider, Gogo recommends that users “refrain from accessing or transmitting sensitive or private information”.

There are several things you can do to protect yourself when using In-flight Wi-Fi.

  • Update Your Firewalls: Before you take a trip, make sure all of your devices are up-to-date on their firewalls, antivirus, and anti-spyware software.
  • Use a VPN (virtual private network). This is the best way to protect your personal data and your device. All data sent or received will be encrypted and protected so that attackers will find it difficult to access your device.
  • Use dual-factor authentication or even better use U2F (universal two factor) physical security key. This form of protection will prevent unwanted access.
  • Select the Wi-Fi network as Public. Within your computer settings, you have the option to choose Home, Work, or Public. When you select a Public network, it turns off file sharing and it can hide your computer from other computers.
  • Avoid Fake Networks: Hackers can sometimes create authentic-looking WiFi networks.  When you connect to such a network, your data can easily be stolen.
  • Lock URL: At the top of your browser, on the left side is a picture of a lock which means that your browser is using HTTPS. Communication between the website and your device is secure and it can prevent hackers from taking over your device.
  • Don’t Update Your Software In-Flight: Sometimes hackers will try to insert malware on your computer by asking you to update your software in order to be connected. So, If the network is asking you to do it, check it with the airline to confirm that it’s necessary.
  • Forget the Network: When you finish your flight, go into your network setting and forget the Network. This way your device won’t automatically connect and it will be protected against any potential threat if the network has been compromised.

If you do not want to use a wireless network during the flight or do not want your airline to take care of your entertainment, you can prepare your own entertainment before traveling.