Taking the Newest Airline Wi-Fi for a Spin

Apr 2, 2017

This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

Passengers might be surprised at how many airline Wi-Fi providers are out there. There are four companies providing service to airlines here in the US alone. Several carriers even have more than one provider. But there’s another company vying for a piece of that pie, and I got to try out its new product last week in Germany.

Inmarsat is a British company that got its start serving the maritime industry, primarily offering safety communications to ships at sea. But it’s also been in the commercial aviation industry for over 25 years. You may remember hearing the company’s name on the news, following the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370, just over three years ago. Its satellite was the last one to trace the doomed aircraft’s location.

Inmarsat offers several products within commercial aviation, including high-speed broadband Wi-Fi for passengers. It’s not available yet on US airlines, so a small group of aviation journalists was invited to Malta to try the new Ka-band service, known as Global Express, or GX. Inmarsat provides the satellite broadband stream, while Honeywell provides the antenna hardware on top of the plane, known as JetWave.

Honeywell's JetWave antenna atop a Lufthansa Airbus A321.
Honeywell’s JetWave antenna atop a Lufthansa Airbus A321.

Our demo flight on Friday, March 17 was a regularly scheduled Lufthansa Airlines flight, number 1311, from Malta International Airport (MLA) to Frankfurt International Airport (FRA) in Germany. During the 2-hour, 28-minute flight, I sat in the very back row of the Lufthansa A321, beside Lufthansa Systems Director Project & Certification, Jan-Peter (Jan) Gänse. Also aboard were with us were Lukas Bucher, Head of Connectivity Programs at Lufthansa Technik, and Inmarsat PR Manager Robeel Haq. To avoid confusion here, Lufthansa Systems handles the technical side of things, while Lufthansa Technik handles the aircraft maintenance side.

Jan told me that GX is designed to work from gate to gate, but due to regulations in Malta, the system couldn’t be available for use until we were above 10,000 feet. In his lap he had a large tablet that had all of the statistics about the hardware and its status. He let me glance at it as the system functions changed from red to green as they came online. We were at a little over 20,000 feet when it finally came up.

Once airborne, I was able to access Netflix using my iPhone 6s. I chose Episode One of “Breaking Bad” because it was one of the first things on the menu. After about a minute, it began playing. Though it was very pixelated at first, it quickly came into a crystal-clear picture, and did not stop to buffer for the few minutes that I watched it. Next I went to YouTube, and finally watched that viral video of the train plowing through the snow and covering unsuspecting people. That popped up quickly, and looked sharp as well. I also watched a live feed of April, that pesky pregnant giraffe. Even she looked sharp while stumbling around pitifully in her little cell.

Using the SpeedTest App, I clocked the download speed between 5-6 Mbps over multiple tests I performed. That’s sufficient enough for most tasks you’d want to perform on a plane. Upload speeds were great as well, from 2.5 to 7.5 Mbps. Others in the group were able to successfully access and communicate through Snapchat Live and Periscope. One colleague was broadcasting on Periscope, but when I tried to watch the life feed, it wouldn’t come up on my phone.

And that’s about when the trouble began. We were all disconnected from the service, and those red bars began appearing on Jan’s tablet. I noticed the one that remained red the longest said “Ground Station.” All in all, GX worked for about half of the flight. During the lulls, we enjoyed some great Warsteiner Premium Pilsener, and had some social fun instead of having our noses glued to the screens of our devices. I even learned that our flight attendant in the back of the cabin had worked for PanAm!

One other point of frustration was that each time the system went down, we had to log in again to get back into the system. Other services don’t require that, if your plane briefly loses connectivity as it switches between satellite signals. That has to be remedied to make it a more seamless experience.

Bottom Line

It’s really too early to hand in a final verdict. The service was meeting expectations pretty well, until it went down, then up and back down again. To be fair, the Global Express system is in beta mode, and they’re working out the kinks. In the meantime, you won’t have to pay for the service if you’re on an equipped aircraft. I’ve tested other providers whose products weren’t quite ready for primetime as well. Jan kept his cool during the flight, and expressed regret that it didn’t work flawlessly for us. I do think it’ll get there, and I’d love to try it again once it’s fully ready for real-world use.

Disclosure: The trip was sponsored by Lufthansa Technik, which covered transportation, lodging and some meals. All descriptions and opinions in the above story belong to the author. 

Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card

Earn 90,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer ends 8/3/2022.

With Status Boost™, earn 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, up to two times per year getting you closer to Medallion Status. Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels, 2X Miles at restaurants and at U.S. supermarkets and earn 1X Mile on all other eligible purchases. Terms Apply.

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • Limited Time Offer: Earn 90,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer ends 8/3/2022.
  • Earn up to 20,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) with Status Boost® per year. After you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, you can earn 10,000 MQMs up to two times per year, getting you closer to Medallion® Status. MQMs are used to determine Medallion® Status and are different than miles you earn toward flights.
  • Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels.
  • Earn 2X Miles at restaurants worldwide including takeout and delivery in the U.S., and at U.S. supermarkets.
  • Earn 1X Miles on all other eligible purchases.
  • Receive a Domestic Main Cabin round-trip companion certificate each year upon renewal of your Card. Payment of the government imposed taxes and fees of no more than $80 for roundtrip domestic flights (for itineraries with up to four flight segments) is required. Baggage charges and other restrictions apply. See terms and conditions for details.
  • Enjoy your first checked bag free on Delta flights.
  • Fee Credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck® after you apply through any Authorized Enrollment Provider. If approved for Global Entry, at no additional charge, you will receive access to TSA PreCheck.
  • Enjoy an exclusive rate of $39 per person per visit to enter the Delta Sky Club® for you and up to two guests when traveling on a Delta flight.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • $250 Annual Fee.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees
Regular APR
17.24%-26.24% Variable
Annual Fee
Balance Transfer Fee
Recommended Credit
Terms and restrictions apply. See rates & fees.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.