Expat Essentials

Expat Essentials: Less down time for biz travelers as airlines trend toward free Wi-Fi

Remember all those years the airlines told you had to turn off your phone or it would crash the airplane? Mysteriously, now that the airlines have figured out how to sell you Wi-Fi on your flight, it’s perfectly safe.

A miracle! Though the airlines do still require you to keep your phone in “airplane mode.”

Posting on LinkedIn did not bring down the (vintage) Boeing 737 I took from Amsterdam to Chicago last week. But it was a bit of culture shock … looking at the built-in ashtrays still in the seat rests and realizing I’d been flying the Atlantic from the days we could roll down the windows and smoke to the new age of high-speed digital communications.

Think about it … you’re at 35,000 feet flying 600 miles per hour, and you’re still able to post cat videos on Facebook. THAT I’m thinking will go down as the high point of human development.

The only question right now is, “How bad do you want it?” On my United Airlines flight, the Wi-Fi fee was $16.95, which is a pretty good deal compared to some of the competition including American Airlines. It was a 9-hour flight and I had a full battery on my MacBook Pro, so why not, right? Less than $2 per hour working on WordPress, which is a data-sucking platform.

But paying for Wi-Fi on the plane could become the fastest fee-based service in history to go extinct. (It still annoys me hugely how so many hotels in the U.S. and Germany make you pay additional fees for Wi-Fi instead of building them into room rates.)

New York-based JetBlue announced last week they’re giving their passengers free Wi-Fi on every aircraft “from the departure gate to the arrival gate” within the contiguous U.S.

From their news release:

“It’s 2017 and our customers expect to be connected everywhere, whether that be from the comfort of their sofa or 35,000 feet above it,” said Jamie Perry, vice president of marketing, JetBlue. “That’s why we’re so proud that JetBlue is now the only airline to offer free, high-speed Wi-Fi, live TV and movies for all customers on every plane.”

For the record, Norwegian also offers free Wi-Fi on most of its Europe flights and on flights between the U.S. and the Caribbean. However, it does not offer Wi-Fi on international flights.

In addition to free access, many airlines are rushing to add Wi-Fi that’s as fast or faster than you have in your own home, even if you live in countries such as Switzerland.

These moves are especially impressive given Wi-Fi on flights is a relatively new development, widely available only since 2013, with Lufthansa the first to offer it on long-haul flights back in 2003.

(The country that outlaws public Wi-Fi pioneered it on planes … go figure.)


Europe lags behind the U.S. when it comes to total availability, with 83-percent of flights in the U.S. offering Wi-Fi compared to 17 percent in Europe. But the Europeans have the fastest connections, and some are on their third Wi-Fi iteration, switching over to satellite technology called Ku/Ka.

Expat expert and business traveler Ivana Avramovic has been prodding me for a couple of months to do a “Wi-Fi on the plane” post. Honestly, I hate to fly and prefer to take trains everywhere. I’d choose to bunk on a banana boat over 1st class on a plane if the boats didn’t take a week to cross the Atlantic.

The mere act of travel for startups such as Dispatches is a big source of stress, trying to keep the business running on the road. It used to drive me crazy sitting on a plane all day, falling further and further behind. Thankfully, those days are over.

The awesomely nice flight attendants on my flight to the U.S. last week told me United has offered the service for years. Most of the time, it works pretty well. Wi-Fi doesn’t work down in Brazil around the Amazon, they told me, probably because there aren’t ground stations.

Of course, the airlines have to bring in third-party contractors to provide connectivity. The dominant company at the moment is Chicago-based Gogo. Gogo has satellites that provide the Wi-Fi connections to planes. Other companies use a series of ground stations, though next-gen providers are using both.

You should note that most, if not all, airlines are fine with your surfing the ‘net, watching movies or whatever. But they draw the line at calling apps, video-conferencing and Skype, mostly because nothing is more intrusive in close quarters than loud and lengthy conversations.

wifiMore than 70 airlines around the world offer Wi-Fi now. So, which airlines offer what?

AIR BERLIN has Wi-Fi once your plane reaches 10,000 feet. Here’s their handy guide to which flights have connectivity.

AMERICAN offers a number of options. The best deal might be the monthly plan on domestic flights only for $49.95 if you fly a lot. On international flights, you can only pay for service once you get on board.

Fees are:

  • 2 hours – $12
  • 4 hours – $17
  • Length of flight – $19

American is dumping Gogo for ViaSat.

BRITISH AIRWAYS is adding hi-speed WiFi this year on long-haul flights. More than 100 BA planes are scheduled to get super-fast 70 mbps connections, according to Wired.

DELTA AIRLINES offers Wi-Fi on international flights. Day passes start at $16.95, monthly passes are $49.95 and annual passes are $599. Delta uses Gogo.

EMIRATES AIRLINES gets high marks from industry publications. According to the airline’s website, it’s free to “blog, post, or tweet from your seat on all of our A380s and most Boeing 777 aircraft. Enjoy 10MB of free data (that’s enough to search, send emails, and update Facebook).” You can also pay $1 to use up to 500MB, which should be enough data to last most flights.

LUFTHANSA pioneered providing Wi-Fi to passengers starting with research in 2000. This year, Lufthansa is scheduled to introduce what they claim is the fastest on-board connection at a blazing 70 mps. The provider is Inmarsat, which uses a combination of satellites and ground stations.

Here are the prices per the Lufthansa website:

  • 1 hour: 9 euros/ $10 or 3,000 air miles
  • 4 hours: 14 euros/ $15.50 or 4,500 miles
  • Full flight (up to 24 hours): 17 euros/ $19 or 5,500 miles

However, Ivana says her bank statement shows she recently paid only 10 euros for six hours, less than advertised.

NORWEGIAN AIRLINES offers free Wi-Fi on most of its Europe flights and flights between the U.S. and the Caribbean. However, it does not offer Wi-Fi on international flights.

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Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.

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