It wasn’t that long ago that we thought of air travel as the one place where we couldn’t be contacted. Being cut off from the outside world was actually a good thing. How things have changed. Now airlines are scored and ranked on their level of connectivity – be it live television or more likely, in-flight Wi-Fi service. Many passengers now base their airline choice on their ability to browse the internet and communicate with business contacts or loved ones on the ground.
Yet despite the growing prevalence of in-flight Wi-Fi, the service hasn’t always been that fast or reliable. There are large parts of the world where the network just doesn’t exist and then there’s country’s like China and India – both of which, effectively ban the use of in-flight Wi-Fi.
But the growing pains are starting to show fruition with North American airlines leading the way connectivity. So far, however, their European counterparts have been slightly slower off the starting blocks. Lufthansa gave it a go way back in 2003 when the technology really was in its infancy.
Unfortunately, Lufthansa’s worldwide Wi-Fi offering had to be discontinued just three years later when the ‘Connexion by Boeing’ satellites that were being used for the service were taken out of service. But by the end of 2010, Lufthansa was back in business – today, all 108 long haul aircraft in the airline’s fleet is Wi-Fi enabled.
Virgin becomes first European airline with all Wi-Fi enabled fleet
Its success in fitting Wi-Fi to short and medium haul flights across Europe has been slightly slower – and that’s where Virgin Atlantic enters the frame. Today, the British airline announced that it had become the first airline in Europe to fit Wi-Fi across its entire fleet.
In fairness to both Lufthansa and other competitors, Virgin’s fleet is tiny in comparison with just 38 aircraft. But Virgin was quick to point out that enabling a reliable connection on its long haul aircraft was only recently achievable – Unlike flying over well-connected areas like the U.S.
“Innovation has always been in our blood and we’ve worked closely with WiFi providers to develop the fastest, most reliable connection across the Atlantic, and are the first carrier to offer WiFi between the UK and the Caribbean, China and Africa,” explained Mark Anderson of Virgin Atlantic.
To celebrate the achievement, the fun loving airline has released a cheeky video poking fun at recent internet trends:
Virgin Atlantic Wi-Fi pricing
Pricing starts from £2.99 for what Virgin calls a ‘Messaging Pass’ on its A330, A340 and 747 aircraft. The ‘Wi-Fi Light’ option provides one hour of internet access for £4.99 and an entire flight worth of Wi-Fi will cost £14.99 – dubbed ‘Wi-Fi Max’.
On Virgin’s Boeing 787 aircraft, the pricing is a little different, with just two options available. ‘Wi-Fi Light’ provides 40MB of data while ‘Wi-Fi Max’ gives 150MB. Virgin says the difference in pricing is because 787 aircraft have a Panasonic system installed, while all other aircraft have Gogo technology.
Gogo leads the way in providing in-flight Wi-Fi
Gogo has become the leading provider of in-flight Wi-Fi, recently reporting revenues of $172.8 million in 2016. Worldwide, Gogo has fitted Wi-Fi to 4,453 aircraft – over half that number, 2,791 are aircraft based in North America. The latest generation 2KU technology boasts significantly improved reliability and speed.
By the end of 2017, Gogo plans to have installed 450 to 550 aircraft with 2KU – Launch customers for the service this year include Air Canada Rouge, British Airways, JTA, Virgin Atlantic, and Virgin Australia. In lab tests, Gogo boasted speeds of 134Mbps – whether this is achieved in reality is quite another thing but the service should still guarantee a major improvement on current speeds.
Lufthansa halfway through upgrading European network
Lufthansa is also currently in the process of installing Wi-Fi across its European fleet with around 20 aircraft fitted with the technology in the first few months of the year. By the end of 2017 over 100 aircraft will be Wi-Fi enabled. The German flag-carrier has partnered with Inmarsat to offer the latest Ka-band broadband satellite technology. This should enable broadband quality internet access.
There are three levels of access offered by Lufthansa:
- FlyNet Message (€3) – Allows the use of simple messaging apps like WhatsApp, iMessage, Facebook Messenger as well as email.
- FlyNet Surf (€7) – Able to surf the internet and access most services.
- FlyNet Stream (€12) – Streaming services such as Netflix are also possible.
The tech is also fitted onto other Lufthansa Group airlines including Eurowings who should have 69 enabled aircraft by the end of the summer and Austrian Airlines.
British Airways to finally get Wi-Fi
Meanwhile, British Airways is also going to finally join the in-flight Wi-Fi party with plans to launch Europe’s first ever 4G high-speed in-flight internet connection on short-haul services. Aircraft are already being fitted with the system and the majority of the airline’s short-haul fleet should be complete by next year.
For its long haul aircraft, British Airways is using Gogo’s 2KU system – 90% of the fleet should be upgraded by 2019. There was a lot of debate at the airline as to whether Wi-Fi should be a source of revenue or cost – In the end, BA plumped for revenue with a range of pricing options starting at £4.99.
Finally, Air France and Dutch carrier KLM will also get internet connectivity at the end of the year following a deal the combined company has struck with Gogo. Again, the 2KU technology is going to be used on 124 aircraft belonging to the two airline’s. Installation should start at the end of the year although pricing hasn’t yet been announced.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.