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Free In-flight Wi-Fi Is Becoming Closer to Reality on US Carriers

July 20, 2019
6 min read
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Major US airlines are currently working to modernize their in-flight Wi-Fi. Airlines plan on offering Wi-Fi with faster speeds, more bandwidth and in-flight streaming. However, improvements to in-flight Wi-Fi won't stop at faster and more reliable connections. Major airlines are now looking toward offering Wi-Fi free to all passengers.

In-flight Wi-Fi has also become much faster and more reliable. With many passengers expecting Wi-Fi as an amenity offered on their flights, airlines are working to democratize in-flight Wi-Fi by making the service free of charge.

While free Wi-Fi is abundant on the ground with hotels, restaurants, airports and even mass transit offering free connectivity, offering free in-flight Wi-Fi was only recently made possible. The first generation of in-flight Wi-Fi didn't offer enough bandwidth to handle 100+ individual connections. However, with the introduction of satellite-based in-flight Wi-Fi, more bandwidth and better reliability have increased significantly. This is allowing airlines like JetBlue to offer free Wi-Fi to all passengers.

Even though technology has advanced to a point that airlines could offer free in-flight Wi-Fi, very few do. However, that's set to change over the next few years as airlines compete to offer the best in-flight connectivity.

Airlines That Plan on Offering Free Wi-Fi

It's much easier for an airline to say that it plans on offering free Wi-Fi than it is to actually go through with offering the service. That being said, a number of airlines have announced plans to expand free in-flight Wi-Fi. With numerous airlines stuck with earlier generation in-flight connectivity systems or only featuring Wi-Fi on select flights, it's not completely clear how close many of these airlines will actually offer it.

As of July 2019, the following airlines have confirmed that they are exploring the option of offering free in-flight WiFi in the future:

American Airlines Reportedly 'Confirms' Free Wi-Fi

Travel blog View From The Wing is reporting that American Airlines has confirmed that it will roll out free in-flight WiFi sometime in the future. The report has not been confirmed by American Airlines.

However, View From The Wing's Gary Leff stated in a recent post that a "well-placed source" at American Airlines has confirmed that the airline will offer free in-flight WiFi. It is not yet clear just how credible Leff's sources are. Nevertheless, the question of whether or not the airline was going to take on Delta in offering free WiFi has been making rounds for months now.

If the report is correct, free Wi-Fi on American Airlines' flights may still be months away. Though American Airlines has made significant process in rolling out faster satellite-based Wi-Fi across its entire mainline fleet, there are still a number of aircraft that could not handle 100+ passenger devices using the Wi-Fi simultaneously.

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An Airbus A319 of American Airlines and a Boeing 777 of Singapore Airlines at LAX Airport, March 2019 (Photo by Alberto Riva/TPG)

Which Airlines Already Offer Free Wi-Fi?

This may come as surprise to passengers that fly airlines including American, United, or Southwest but there are a number of airlines that already offer free in-flight Wi-Fi to all or some passengers.

Free in-flight Wi-Fi was originally an amenity reserved for business or first class passengers. The first airlines to offer free in-flight Wi-Fi provided select premium passengers with vouchers to use onboard their flight for free access. The service was not unlike hotels only offering guests who book more expensive rates like suites or packages free Wi-Fi.

Some airlines continue to offer free Wi-Fi vouchers to premium passengers. However, free Wi-Fi has expanded to economy class cabins in recent years. The following airlines offer free Wi-Fi on some or all of its flights:

  • Aer Lingus – Airbus A321XLR only
  • Air China – Domestic only; smartphones not supported
  • Air New Zealand – All aircraft with Wi-Fi
  • China Eastern – Some, unclear and restrictive policy
  • Emirates – Free introductory period on all flights with Wi-Fi
  • Hainan – All flights, with some restrictions
  • JetBlue – All flights
  • Nok Air – All flights
  • Norweigan Air – All aircraft with Wi-Fi
  • Philippines Airlines – Free introductory period on all flights with Wi-Fi
  • Qantas – Domestic only
  • Qatar Airways – Free introductory period on all flights with Wi-Fi
  • Virgin Australia – Domestic flights only
(Photo by Javier Rodriguez / The Points Guy)
(Photo by Javier Rodriguez / The Points Guy)

Bottom Line

Seats may be shrinking and in-flight amenities are limited to a free soft drink, however, there is one front that airlines aren't cutting back on. That's in-flight connectivity. If there's one way to keep passengers content, it's to allow passengers to have the freedom to stream what they want, browse the internet, access social media, and stay connected with those on the ground. Airlines have recognized this and are now working to compete not on seat comfort but on in-flight connectivity.

While only a handful of airlines offer free in-flight WiFi at the moment, a number of major airlines are investing in faster and more reliable in-flight WiFi with the hopes of offering free in-flight WiFi to all passengers. It is only a matter of time before passengers are able to sit back and stream their favorite Netflix original series at 35,000 feet without having to pay.

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Featured image by Getty Images