Oneworld carrier Qatar Airways has announced that it has become the largest airline to sign up to SpaceX’s new Starlink in-flight Wi-Fi system, which will be able to offer speeds of up to 350 Mbps, free to all passengers on selected aircraft and routes.
The ‘One-Click-Access’ connection is promised to be fast enough to support “gaming, VPN access, sports streaming and more”, and should be a far cry from the ‘slow to acceptable’ Wi-Fi systems most of us are now used to when flying with a range of airlines.
However, as for the ‘where and when’ of the launch – things start to become a little fuzzier.
Farewell Global Xpress, hello Starlink
Qatar Airways has been progressively rolling out its “Super Wi-Fi” in recent years, which is powered by the Inmarsat (now Viasat) Global Xpress (GX) Ka-band satellite network, though some aircraft like the carrier’s A380s still only offer the old slow SITA OnAir connection.
With advertised download speeds of “up to 50 Mbps”, we actually found around 16 Mbps to be the realistic maximum in our review of the carrier’s GX connection.
“Super Wi-Fi” is free for the first hour, and is then typically charged at US$10 after that for a full-flight pass, regardless of travel class, but Starlink will eliminate this cost for passengers.
As many of our readers know, Singapore Airlines also uses the GX Aviation Ka-band Wi-Fi system on its Airbus A350 Medium Haul, Airbus A380 and selected Boeing 777-300ERs.
This will give you higher speeds (typically around 70% faster) than the lower frequency Ku-band system, fitted to the carrier’s other jets, but neither will come close to what Starlink is now promising.
Qatar Airways has announced that it is going one step further than the GX Aviation kit, becoming the largest customer so far for SpaceX’s Starlink Aviation solution.
Starlink uses a network of Low Earth Orbit satellites, which sit at around 550km altitude, compared to more typical geostationary satellites, like Inmarsat’s, that sit almost 36,000km above the earth.
This allows for faster speeds and much lower latency (delay), compared to the satellite Wi-Fi connections we are currently used to.
Starlink already boasts the world’s largest satellite internet constellation, consisting of over 5,000 satellites.
The latency is the ‘ping’ time you see when doing an internet connection speed test, and it sure does come in at around 600ms when we’ve done so on most of our flights using more traditional satellite connections (even 900ms is not uncommon).
Starlink is already in operation on JSX‘s 40-strong fleet of Embraer regional jets, and has been winning high praise from passengers during speed tests, with ping times of 23ms to 145ms, a fraction of the current norm on most airlines.
One-click gate-to-gate connectivity
One of the big selling points of Starlink Wi-Fi is the ability to connect as soon as you board the aircraft, right up to disembarkation.
This is unlike most current systems, which need the aircraft to be at cruising altitude (or more realistically above around 10,000ft) for the Wi-Fi to be operational.
The system will also single click connectivity – just select the Wi-Fi network from the list.
Which aircraft and when?
Qatar Airways is remaining tight-lipped about which aircraft and routes will receive this new Starlink Wi-Fi connection, simply stating it will be launched “on specified aircraft and routes”.
In the same statement, Starlink’s Vice President of Commercial Sales Jonathan Hofeller says that Starlink is “set to support the entire Qatar Airways fleet”, so it’s a little confusing at this stage whether the airline plans a partial or full rollout in due course.
There is also no timescale provided by Qatar Airways or Starlink for this rollout.
Other Starlink customers
Hawaiian Airlines – another Starlink customer – plans to launch the service on its Airbus A321neo aircraft in early 2024, a delay to its plan to offer the system this year, due to certification issues.
Later the carrier will also use the system on its wide-body Airbus A330s, which could be the first true test of what speeds Starlink can offer with close to 300 simultaneous users.
As with all Starlink customers to date, including Qatar Airways, the system will be offered free of charge, gate-to-gate, with one-click connectivity.
Will Singapore Airlines jump on board?
Singapore Airlines recently made unlimited Wi-Fi connectivity free of charge for all passengers across its fleet, with the exception of the seven ex-SilkAir Boeing 737-800s, which don’t have any internet connection.
Those travelling in Economy and Premium Economy need to be KrisFlyer members in order to benefit, but in Business Class and First Class it doesn’t matter. Full details of SIA’s inflight Wi-Fi service are available here.
With typical speeds of between 4 Mbps and 9 Mbps on board, the airline is running the risk of being left behind in the Wi-Fi connectivity stakes if more carriers follow the likes of Qatar Airways and switch to the Starlink system.
Qatar Airways already offers its excellent Qsuite Business Class on all Singapore flights, and has arguably the best Business Class lounge in the whole airport, so the addition of fast complimentary Starlink Wi-Fi on board would certainly make the carrier an even more compelling proposition for Singapore-based travellers.
In-flight Wi-Fi has already come on leaps and bounds from the early days of expensive and frustratingly slow connections, like those we commonly saw in the early to mid-2010s.
In most cases we can already enjoy free Wi-Fi with around 5 – 15 Mbps speeds on the likes of Singapore Airlines, while Qatar Airways’ existing “Super Wi-Fi” complements the Qsuite experience at a typical cost of US$10 for the whole flight.
The latest iteration is from Low Earth Orbit satellites like SpaceX’s Starlink system, with low latency and higher speeds, which should be the next shift-change for the industry in the years ahead, giving us gate-to-gate on-board Wi-Fi speeds we are more used to seeing at home or in the office.
It’s something Singapore Airlines is surely watching closely, since the carrier won’t want to be left behind in the competitive and now-essential on-board connectivity stakes.
As for Qatar Airways’ introduction of the system, there are still a few details to come to light, such as aircraft type and route deployment, how much of the fleet will ultimately offer Starlink, and of course when we can expect to start using it on board.
Watch this Space(X).
(Cover Photo: Qatar Airways)