Norwegian wireless emails

Internet at 35,000 Feet. How Hard Can it Be?

Ten hours, possibly longer, stuck in a small metal tube with hundreds of other people each wrestling for the tiniest amount of extra space. Flying can be a chore.

Electronics powering music, movies and games, are staples of modern flyers that help to pass the time. Airlines invest millions in onboard entertainment systems to improve passenger experience.

A quick Google search will show you that many passengers, including myself, are now regularly asking if internet services are found onboard flights. The same search will also show you how poor these services can be, assuming they exists at all.

Boeing’s early in-flight Internet service, Connexion, launched in 2001 (since discontinued). 17 year later, how has the market for in-flight internet developed?

Methodology

Each year Skytrax put together a list of the top 100 airlines around the world using a range of variables. The most recent is the 2017 version. Due to the merger of Alaska Airlines (36) and Virgin America (43) I have reduced the list to 99, removing Virgin America.

For each of the 99 airlines I then visited their websites to identify if:

  1. they offer onboard internet
  2. the cost of internet services, if applicable

Not all airlines clearly document wether internet services exist. Many use the umbrella term “WiFi onboard”, however, in many cases this does not include internet access, instead just access to a network with inflight content (similar to that offered on traditional inflight entertainment systems). Those who did not explicitly document internet access were recorded as not to offer it.

Similarly, many airlines are slowly rolling out wifi. In some cases only a few routes served by an airline have in-flight internet, for others the coverage is more widespread. Due to lack of information about internet access by route the actual prevalence of internet onboard is not accounted for.

The cost of in-flight internet, which almost all airlines charge for, is rather complex. There is no unified standard for providing services, some airlines charge based on data usage, others by time, and in some case some by the originating country of the flight. Due to lack of standardisation, I only documented the airlines that offered free access or paid access to in-flight internet.

Finally, I assigned each airline a classification based on the routes they serve, either regional (only short/medium-haul routes) and international (at least one long-haul route), the assumption being that fewer regional flights will offer in-flight internet because of the shorter flight times.

Results

In-flight internet coverage (all airlines)

Skytrax 100 Airlines with Internet Available Onboard (Jan 2018)

Download chart.

67 of airlines in the top 99 offer internet on at least one of their routes. The top 20 Skytrax rated airlines all have in-flight internet services available. There is a strong correlation between in-flight internet and an airlines Skytrax rating — those towards the bottom of the rankings tend not to offer internet services to customers.

In-flight internet coverage (international airlines)

Skytrax 100 International Airlines with Internet Available Onboard (Jan 2018)

Download chart.

Of the 73 international airlines covered, 53 offered onboard internet.

In-flight internet coverage (regional airlines)

Skytrax 100 Regional Airlines with Internet Available Onboard (Jan 2018)

Download chart.

Unsurprisingly, a smaller share of regional airlines offer onboard internet — 14 of the 26 regional airlines offer the service.

Free in-flight internet for business of first class travellers (all airlines)

Skytrax 100 Airlines with Free Internet Available Onboard for Business or First (Jan 2018)

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The cost to retrofit planes with internet capabilities represents a significant investment for an airline. Many in-flight internet providers have business models to make a much money as possible to a very small number of people charging eye-watering prices to access internet services. 11 of the 99 airlines offer free in-flight internet as standard to business or first class customers.

Skytrax 2017 rank Airline Type Free internet in first or business
4 Emirates International Yes
10 Garuda Indonesia International Yes
12 Turkish Airlines International Yes
28 Norwegian International Yes
38 Aer Lingus International Yes
39 jetBlue Airways Regional Yes
67 Philippine Airlines International Yes
72 China Eastern International Yes
82 Icelandair International Yes
84 Gulf Air International Yes
98 Air China International Yes

Full table.

Free in-flight internet for economy travellers (all airlines)

Skytrax 100 Airlines with Free Internet Available Onboard for Economy (Jan 2018)

Download chart.

Only 6 of the 99 airlines offer some level of free in-flight internet to economy flyers. However, most of these services are limited by time or data volume making anything other than checking emails impossible.

Skytrax 2017 rank Airline Type Free for all
4 Emirates International Yes (limited)
10 Garuda Indonesia International Yes (limited)
28 Norwegian International Yes (unlimited)
67 Philippine Airlines International Yes (limited)
98 Air China International Yes (limited)
39 jetBlue Airways Regional Yes (limited)

Full table.

Norwegian deserve a special mention not just because they offer an unlimited in-flight internet service, where available, but also because of the high number of their routes where this service is available.

tl;dr

67 of the top 99 Skytrax airlines offer in-flight internet. International carriers most likely to offer the service (72%) when compared to their regional counterparts (54%).

Get the Data

Get all the data used in this blog post on Google Sheets.


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