Stay vigilant as more airlines cap data packages in-flight


Airlines are pricing their inflight Wi-Fi services in several different ways, but one scheme in particular is poised to become more common, particularly in economy class on international carriers.

In a testament to passengers’ insatiable appetites for bandwidth – and the finite amount of Ku-band satellite capacity available to aircraft flying globally – the sale of megabyte (MB) packages of data is about to become much more frequent.

A case in point is airberlin, which intends to offer passengers a variety of different MB packages, including a ‘full flight package’ of 120 MB of data for EUR 18.90 to cover a long-haul flight. The carrier is a retail customer of Panasonic Avionics’ Ku-band satellite-supported connectivity service, and an early test case for Panasonic’s new MB packages, as explained here.

By now you’ve probably heard about the Canadian chap who recklessly ignored the fine print on Singapore Airlines and found himself on the receiving end of a $1,174 bill for charges accrued as a result of going over his 30 MB allotment. But this service, provided by OnAir, operates over L-band satellites, and has always been seen as being more of a ‘light connectivity’ offering, thus the need for MB packages.

Ku, on the other hand, was billed as capable of supporting passengers’ unfettered access to the Internet. But as take rates rise, we passengers will increasingly be capped, even when the service operates via higher capacity Ku satellites.

This begs the question – how fast will we eat up this type of data package?

According to European cellular provider Vodafone, reading or sending an average email on your smartphone uses about 70 KB of data. Social media posts utilize about 350 KB each, and that doesn’t include the updates that automatically download to your device for you to read. An average text document is also only a few hundred kilobytes. You use about 1 MB for each webpage you load. Photo uploads can range from about 250 KB to over 6 MB per file.

Where one can really get into trouble is while streaming music or videos. Streaming music uses 716.8 KB per minute, while streaming video chips away 3.75 MB per minute, says Vodafone. After only eight minutes of video use or a few songs, you’ve already blazed through 30 MB.

My inclination is to suggest you avoid data-capped service options, but that would mean avoiding using Wi-Fi altogether on myriad carriers. It’s true that the most common pricing for airborne Wi-Fi via Ku is currently a flat fee for the whole flight, or portion thereof. This gives you unlimited data usage, though video streaming functions are restricted.

But as much as 80% of Panasonic’s airline customers will ultimately be under some kind of MB model. Though it takes time to migrate from the current pay-for-service model to a MB package model, “you’ll see more and more of these types of programs come online in 2015”, says Panasonic Avionics VP Global Communications Services David Bruner.

The company looked beyond the airline industry at other markets when deciding to adopt this scheme. “For example, we looked at one US-based mobile phone operator that allowed customers to reach a non-specific ceiling, at which their service would radically slow down. The feedback from customers was terrible. Obviously, we don’t want to do that to our airline partners’ passengers. Instead, we decided to introduce this new scheme, and let passengers decide what they want to do with their bandwidth. So we’re introducing the MB model, which is similar to the business model that is used by virtually every mobile phone operator in the world. We prefer this pricing plan over having passengers reach a non-specific ceiling where the service starts to slow down,” says Bruner.

“And we believe that MB packages allow us to now provide the best possible service to everybody all the time. If a passenger wants to use it up quickly, then they have an option to purchase more data. If a passenger goes slower, they will have a longer session. Whatever they decide, they are in control of their experience, and, most importantly, they are not impacted by what the person next to them chooses to do with their own connected device.”

From where I sit, airlines don’t owe anything to those passengers who plead ignorance when the policies are clearly presented during the sign-in process. But infrequent travelers could get burned. So please take the time to read and educate yourself about any service offered. Once you do, the skies will (hopefully) be clear.