SpaceX is starting to make deals with airlines to bring its Starlink satellite internet to sky travelers everywhere. It announced a deal with Hawaiian Airlines on Monday, and last week struck a similar deal with charter carrier JSX. None of the parties involved shared financial details of their deals, but both airlines said they plan to offer free in-flight Wi-Fi, which is both a semi-miraculous fact and a a hopeful sign that free Wi-Fi is becoming the industry standard. Delta, meanwhile, confirmed last week that it was conducting “exploratory” Starlink testing.
Inflight Wi-Fi has been on the Starlink team’s mind for some time. Jonathan Hofeller, SpaceX’s vice president of Starlink and commercial sales, said last year the company was building an aircraft product and was “in talks with several airlines.” It’s a natural place for the company to focus, really: in-flight Wi-Fi is a billion-dollar and rapidly growing market, and it’s currently dominated by Viasat and Gogo, two products no one wouldn’t accuse of being fast innovators. And perhaps best of all for Starlink, there are none of those pesky trees or buildings in the sky to get in the way! In the long run, there could be a lot of competition here, especially from companies like OneWeb and Amazon, which are also big bets on satellite internet. But for now, the industry looks set to be disrupted.
Over the past two years, the company has been busy launching more satellites, getting FCC approvals, and developing the ability to let satellites talk to each other without needing to communicate with ground stations.
When it all comes together, Hofeller promised it would be a huge step forward in the speed and quality of in-flight Wi-Fi. (Starlink currently promises download speeds of up to 200Mbps for its land users.) Now, if you’ve ever paid extra for “fast” Internet access on a flight, you know how bad that term is. used loosely, so don’t get your hopes too high. And there is still a long way to go, both regulatory and product-wise, and even Starlink’s existing products have bugs and issues. But the current in-flight bar is certainly low enough for Starlink (or someone else) to do better.
Airlines seem equally keen on the idea. Executives have repeatedly noted over the past few years that passenger expectations are well ahead of the technology available in flight, and things have slowly started to improve. Delta has opened up some bandwidth to allow users to text throughout a flight, for example, and JetBlue has made in-flight Wi-Fi free for its passengers. But there’s still nothing out there that even comes close to rivaling your home internet, or even what you’d get in a crowded cafe. SpaceX thinks Starlink can change that, and a number of airlines seem to be open to the idea.
As for when all of this will hit your aisle seat? JSX said it is already testing the Starlink service and plans to roll it out to its fleet Later this yearwhile Hawaiian Airlines said it was “in the early stages of implementation and expects[s] to begin installing the product on select aircraft next year. It’s a vague timeline, and companies owned by Elon Musk aren’t exactly known for meeting their deadlines. But it happens. And it probably won’t be the last airlines to start looking for a place to mount a Starlink antenna.