Inflight WiFi: How Does It Work?

Inflight Wi-Fi lets you access the internet even when you are soaring thousands feet above the earth.

And keep yourself entertained, or even work, during a long flight, but, have you ever wondered how Inflight Wi-Fi works?

Inflight Wi-Fi older method requires your aircraft to connect to cell phone towers on the ground. This means that it only works over, or close to, land. Some aircraft have been upgraded to satellite connections. Here, your aircraft will talk to satellites orbiting Earth. These connections will work no matter where you are.

Let’s discuss this in a bit more depth. I will even let you know how you can get connected to your airplane Wi-Fi.

Let’s kick things off

How Does Inflight Wi-Fi Work?

This will depend on the specific airline or aircraft you are boarding, but generally Inflight Wi-Fi can work in one of two ways.

  • Air to Ground (ATG): with this method, the aircraft connects directly to cellphone towers on the ground.
  • Satellite connectivity: your aircraft will have a connection with one of the many satellites orbiting the planet.

Unfortunately, you can’t really predict which method your airline chooses. Things can differ from a flight to another, and you may have to do a bit of research to determine the capabilities of your selected route.

Let’s tell you a little about how each method works.


This isn’t too dissimilar to how your cell phone stays connected to the internet. All over the US (and the globe, for that matter), there are cell phone towers.

A small antenna at the bottom of the aircraft maintains a connection with them.

This is the oldest method used for Inflight Wi-Fi. So, you’re more likely to encounter an ATG connection on your flight than you are a satellite connection.

Unfortunately, air-to-ground communication only works when the airline can ‘see’ those cellphone towers.

So, the connection can be a bit spotty. You’ll likely find that ATG doesn’t work when you are flying over hefty oceans, or if you are traveling over large, unpopulated, expanses of land.

ATG connections can be a bit unstable when you are flying over very built-up areas too.

An aircraft travels at hundreds of miles an hour, and it needs to constantly switch between cellphone towers. Sometimes, this can lead to a slowdown or loss of connectivity.


Satellite communication is a bit newer, and it has none of the downsides of air-to-ground communication.

Although, since the tech is much more expensive, very few airlines (particularly the cheaper ones), have yet to make the transition to satellite tech.

Satellite connection tech still uses a small antenna on the aircraft. However, rather than ‘talking’ to the cellphone towers on the ground, the aircraft talks to various internet-connected satellites orbiting the planet (and there are a lot of them up there).

Satellite connections tend to be much more stable, and often a lot zippier. You’ll also find that they still work no matter where you are.

Pretty much everywhere on Earth will be in the range of multiple satellites. Although, as we said, most airlines have yet to transition to them.

How Do You Connect To Inflight Wi-Fi?

No matter what tech is used on your flight, connecting to Inflight Wi-Fi is the same. There’ll be a hotspot to connect to.

Connecting to Wi-Fi on an aircraft is much the same as connecting to Wi-Fi at home.

When you search for networks, you’ll see your aircraft’s network listed. Connect to it. You likely won’t need to enter a password.

In some cases, you may have to pay to connect to the Wi-Fi. This will depend on your flight and, quite often, the class that you are traveling in.

To use the internet on your aircraft, you’ll need to do the following:

  1. Connect to the Wi-Fi network like you would at home or at work.
  2. Open the web browser on your device.
  3. Follow any instructions, including making a payment. At the very least, you’ll have to accept the terms and conditions of the Wi-Fi network.

Remember, you should only be connecting to Wi-Fi networks when the captain has given you permission to do so.

During take-off and landing, your phone / laptop / tablet should be set to ‘ Airplane Mode’. You can’t connect to Wi-Fi when ‘Airplane Mode’ is turned on.

As soon as you have permission to turn it off, feel free to connect to the Wi-Fi, text or even play your favorite games.

If you have any issues, talk to the cabin crew. They’re there to help. You may also want to look in the back of the seat in front of you.

Many airlines have a piece of paper that gives you detailed instructions on connecting to Wi-Fi.

Do All Flights Offer Wi-Fi?

No. Not all flights offer Wi-Fi. If you want to know whether your flight will have Wi-Fi, then ask your airline.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to know whether the Wi-Fi will be an ATG or satellite connection.

Most airlines use both systems. In most cases, if your flight takes place over land (or close to land), it’ll be ATG.

If you fly over a large ocean e.g., the Atlantic Ocean, it will likely be satellite (no guarantees, though).

Chances are that your airline may not be able to tell you. Aircraft are switched around a lot, so while an aircraft currently operating on a route may use satellite, it could be switched for an aircraft that uses ATG. So, most airlines won’t offer guarantees of connectivity.

Final Thoughts

Inflight Wi-Fi works in a couple of different ways. The method will depend on the flight. Most flights use ATG communication.

Here, the aircraft will maintain an internet connection by talking to cellphone towers on the ground. It is unstable, and it only works over land.

Newer tech, which many airlines have yet to embrace, involves the aircraft talking to satellites orbiting Earth.

It is much more stable. No matter which tech is used, connecting to Wi-Fi is easy. It is no different from connecting to Wi-Fi at home.

Although do remember that some airlines may charge you for Wi-Fi access. 

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