More than 1 in 4 planes worldwide have Wi-Fi

Number of commercial jets offering service set to rise as carriers try to outdo rivals and meet travellers' demands

Surfing in the air is increasingly becoming available for Singapore Airlines (SIA) travellers, with half of the carrier's fleet - about 50 planes - Wi-Fi friendly.

More aircraft will be progressively equipped.

Subsidiary Scoot, which operates budget flights, has a fleet of 12 Boeing 787s which all offer customers Wi-Fi access.

SIA and Scoot are among about 70 airlines that provide the service, for a fee in many cases.

The take-up rate for inflight Wi-Fi service has been good, said both SIA and Scoot, but they declined to provide numbers for "competitive reasons". For Scoot, the service is particularly popular for longer-haul flights and flights operated in the day, said the airline's chief commercial officer Leslie Thng.

Worldwide, more than one in four commercial planes are equipped with the technology, said market research firm Valour Consultancy. Wi-Fi coverage is expected to increase as travellers become more demanding and airlines aim to outdo each other in an increasingly competitive market.

The forecast is that two in three planes will be connected by 2025, Valour Consultancy said.

Mr Jim Walker, vice-president and managing director for Asia Pacific at Rockwell Collins, which designs and manufactures communication systems, said in-flight entertainment and connectivity "will continue to play an even more important role for airlines going forward to keep their passengers satisfied and to build brand loyalty".

Wi-Fi usage charges are based on either how much data is used or how long a person is connected.

SIA, for example, charges US$6.99 (S$9.96) for a 15MB plan and up to US$19.99 for 50MB when it comes to volume-based fees.

Time-based charges range from US$11.95 for an hour of surfing to US$21.95 for a 24-hour block.

Volume-based pricing seems to be gaining the most traction, Valour Consultancy said.

This is partly due to the emergence of "bandwidth hogs" who consume excessive amounts of data which degrades the experience for everyone else on board.

Rather than blocking sites with embedded videos or slowing down the service after a particular ceiling has been reached, there is increasing interest in adopting the per MB pricing model. This way, those who want to consume more data can pay to do so, the firm said.

As for free Web surfing in the sky, there are two crucial challenges.

First, more passengers sharing the available bandwidth will degrade the service and potentially make it unusable, or at least frustrating to use.

Satellite technology, which supports Wi-Fi surfing on board planes, also comes at a cost to carriers. Many airlines are, in fact, subsidising connectivity, believing it is a short-term hit worth taking in order to meet the demands of their passengers and to stay ahead of, or at least keep pace with, the competition, the firm added.

For undergraduate Gurwin Sandhu, 21, staying connected "is a need, not luxury". "So, onboard Wi-Fi is definitely a useful service. People should pay for data consumed though, and not time spent which makes no sense," she said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 22, 2016, with the headline 'More than 1 in 4 planes worldwide have Wi-Fi'. Print Edition | Subscribe