Why WiFi on Airplanes So Bad Yet Expensive?


It’s 2023. You have booked one of the top airlines with the hope that you would receive a latency-free smooth internet connection.  With such expectation in mind, you board your 7:00 a.m. flight with a premade plan of catching some Netflix during your four-hour flight, but all you can see is the Netflix loading icon rotating endlessly with the buffering score barely passing 24%. 

You’d think that in this day and age, the internet would be the last thing you’d need to worry about, but unfortunately, that’s not the case. But why? Why can’t we NOT think about how we’re dangerously defying the laws of physics by relying on gallons of jet fuel and just watch something comfortable and funny to mask the inner fear amidst the sea of entertainment?

Let’s try to find out why our expensive flight’s WiFi takes us back to the stone age, or worse.

Gogo has secured a 10-year contract with most airlines, ensuring continued use of third-party WiFi maintained by them.
Gogo has secured a 10-year contract with most airlines, ensuring continued use of third-party WiFi maintained by them.

Gogo Origins

The answer lies with a company named Gogo, Inc. Gogo, Inc. are the people who practically own and operate the majority of in-flight internet. Based on the statement of a Gogo Representative, there are a bunch of reasons why the in-flight WiFi is slow, and at the heart of it is the fact that your average WiFi-equipped plane provides the internet at about the same speed as your smartphone. Now, on the surface, there’s nothing wrong with that, especially when you’re at home using it solo without restriction, but imagine a scenario where the same idea is applied to a passenger plane with over 300 people on board. Now you might ask, in this day and age where technology is rapidly evolving, why don’t we just opt for better equipment that’ll enable a faster internet connection? While it’s not technically impossible, the challenge remains where more and more people are using a single source of internet, waning the overall quality. Hypothetically, if every single individual on the plane did NOT come with a phone or a laptop, we wouldn’t be having this issue in the first place. And to the fun side, everyone dreams of watching Netflix just like you!!!

However, the second generation of Gogo’s Standard Air-To-Ground internet tech is being ready to be deployed while their proprietary satellite technology 2ku is slowly being implemented by more and more airlines as time progresses. Now, the main issue concerning this technological upgrade is the cost, since only around 150 planes are currently equipped with Gogo’s satellite-based internet. Now the cost is not only up front, neither exclusively financial. You see, in order to upgrade the equipment, a plane needs at least two to three days of servicing time, and the money loss is counted for the airline for as long as the plane is out of order. The equipment on the other hand needs to be custom-made since it’s rare to find manufacturers who master aircraft-based internet technology. Said tech must also go through a certification process which also takes a considerable amount of time and money, and each individual fleet category needs to work with this certification that can lengthen the process. Truth is, WiFi is considered seemingly trivial on the list of priorities for aircraft considering how they are already trying to stay profitable and suffice it to say, putting planes out of commission won’t be seen with a good impression anytime soon.

Wifi usages differences
The WiFi usage on a hypothetical flight between New York and San Francisco is reported to be heavier, while on a flight between Minneapolis and Miami, it is lighter.


With that, comes a question. Is Gogo the only one providing the service, or do they have competitors? If so, why aren’t they stepping up? Well, they don’t. If you’ve used in-flight WiFi, you only had one option, and that was Gogo. However, this wasn’t done out of the blue. Gogo actually locked in a 10-year contract with the majority of airlines, guaranteeing the airlines to continue using WiFi that will be maintained by a third party. Leaving others with no chance to pace with the competition. According to Bloomberg, Gogo originally had two main competitors called ViaSat and GEE which utilized satellites for customers like JetBlue and SouthWest.Both of them came with way faster connections and lower prices, but unfortunately could not dominate Gogo. Why? Contracts. As soon as the contract kicks in, hardware lock-in takes control. Since Gogo, Viasat, and GEE use proprietary equipment, switching meant they had to do a hard reset where replacing servers and antennas became mandatory.

Pricing Strategy

Now, considering the performance, let’s talk about the price and why it’s so darn expensive! In-flight Wi-Fi has only gotten more expensive over the years, while the performance is…well…you know. Apparently, the many roadblocks that Gogo faces in terms of upgrading equipment can, according to them, be solved with MONEY. Wait a minute, What? Well, here’s the breakdown.

On a hypothetical flight between New York and San Francisco, it’s been reported that the WiFi usage is heavier, whereas on a flight between Minneapolis and Miami, it’s a lot lighter. The former flight will most probably host a majority of business passengers who have access to expense accounts and can and WILL pay a high premium for the internet. However, the folks who aren’t business passengers are actively discouraged from paying a sky-high price. On the latter flight, Gogo charges less and expects fewer users. And the fewer the users, the faster the internet gets. Gogo, at this point, is basically using the concept of pricing as a means of capacity control. While the concept makes sense, a passenger being unable to send an email after paying a ridiculous amount of money is simply sad.

However, there is hope. Better and faster in-flight WiFi is on its way, as American Airlines is actively working to invest in better in-flight connectivity. Airlines in general have more than enough reasons to upgrade their offerings, so here’s to hoping!