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Roaming on Planes: How Does It Work?

If you have been on a plane recently, you have always been told to put your phone on airplane mode. You may have heard of stories of people racking up phone bills in the hundreds, even though they were high in the sky (like this incident where the person received a $300 phone bill by forgetting to turn airplane mode on). Can you actually roam while on a plane? I decided to find out.

Does roaming work on planes? You can roam on planes if the airplane has equipment that allows passengers to use their mobile phones onboard. If it does, then the aircraft’s antenna for off-aircraft communications connects with satellites that relay the signals to the ground network.

Let's get into the details of how the system works.

How Does Roaming Work on Planes?

When you take your phone out of airplane mode, the phone tries to communicate with the nearest antenna of your home provider.

Ground antennas for 4G have a limited reach, so it will not be possible to connect with the ground network when you are 39000 feet (11900 meters) in the sky.

However, just like how many modern airplanes have onboard WIFI, some have an antenna for off-aircraft communications like roaming.

This antenna connects with the satellite of the onboard roaming provider, which then relays the signals to its ground network.

From there, the ground network uses your SIM card’s IMEI number (International Mobile Equipment Identity – a factory-installed unique serial number that has 15 digits) to see if your home provider has a roaming agreement with the onboard roaming provider.

When all is confirmed, then you can use your device like you are on the ground – you can browse, text, and even call while up in the air.

Can I Roam on Planes?

It depends. If the airline you are flying with has an inflight roaming system in place and your provider allows inflight roaming, then you can roam on your flight.

Depending on the roaming provider, the onboard-roaming service becomes available once the aircraft has reached a certain altitude, just like with onboard WIFI connections.

With AeroMobile, who provides technology and services that allow passengers to roam on planes, the aircraft needs to reach 6000 meters (19 690 feet) before the AeroMobile roaming network becomes available.

However, this can differ depending on the conditions of the flight. The cabin crew will make an announcement once the service is available and when you are allowed to connect to it.

AeroMobile Partner Airlines

AeroMobile has installed its hardware on 24 airlines. Below is a complete list of airlines, aircraft, and destinations where you can use the AeroMobile network*:

Aer LingusA330-200 & A330-300Between Ireland and Orlando, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Washington DC, Newark, Los Angeles, Miami, Seattle, New York, and Toronto
Air Italy A330-200 & A330-300 On selected flights to destinations including the US, Thailand, and Finland
Air SerbiaA319-100, A320-200 & A330-200From Air Serbia’s Belgrade hub to destinations in Europe, the Middle East, and New York
AlitaliaA330-200, A340-500 & B777-200 EROn international flights, to destinations including New York, Miami and South America from Alitalia’s hub airports Milan and Rome
Asiana AirlinesA350-900On flights from its Seoul hub to China, Japan, Philippines, Singapore, and the US
Biman Bangladesh AirlinesB787-8On selected flights to global destinations from its Dhaka hub
Cathay PacificA350-900From Cathay Pacific’s Hong Kong hub to destinations including Bangkok, Singapore, Osaka, and other long-haul destinations
EgyptairB787-9On selected flights to Europe, the US, Canada, South Africa, and Asia
EmiratesA319-100, B777-200LR & B777-300EROn over 300 flights every day, to and from Dubai
Etihad AirwaysA330-200, A330-300, A350-900, A380-800, B777-300ER & B787-9On flights to and from Abu Dhabi
EurowingsA330-200From EuroWing’s German hub in Cologne, traveling to destinations including Cuba, Phuket, Dubai, and Barbados
Eva AirB777-300EROn flights to and from Taipei, New York, Los Angeles, and Vietnam
Kuwait AirwaysB777-300EROn flights from Kuwait International Airport to various long-haul destinations
LufthansaA330-300, A340-300, A340-600, A350-900, A380-800, B747-400 & B747-8On routes worldwide from their Munich and Frankfurt hubs
Malaysia AirlinesA350-900On flights to and from London Heathrow, Japan (Narita International Airport) and Hong Kong from their hub in Kuala Lumpur.
Malindo AirB737-900On flights to and from Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, India, Nepal, and Bangladesh Qatar AirwaysA330-200On flights to and from Doha SAS Scandinavian AirlinesA330-300, A340-300 & B737-800On domestic Scandinavian routes and long haul flights to the US, Hong Kong, China, and Japan Singapore AirlinesA350-900, B777-300ER & B787-10On routes to and from Singapore including London Heathrow, Hong Kong, Australia and Tokyo SwissA330-300 & B777-300ERFrom Swiss International Air Line’s Zurich hub to European destinations including Athens, Frankfurt, and Barcelona, as well as long-haul destinations such as Hong Kong and New York.
Tap Air PortugalA330-900NeoOn routes to South and Central America including; Brazil, El Salvador, and Mexico Turkish AirlinesA330-200, A330-300, A340-500 & B777-300EROn flights from Turkish Airlines Istanbul hub to various long-haul destinations Uzbekistan AirwaysB787-9On selected flights to destinations including Europe, Asia, and the US Virgin AtlanticA330-200, A330-300 & B747-400On flights from London Gatwick and selected flights from Manchester and London Heathrow

*Note: The AeroMobile service is subject to airline scheduling and cannot be guaranteed. Listen to onboard announcements for connectivity options on your flight.

OnAir Partner Airlines

OnAir installed its hardware on 25 airlines such as AirAsia, ANA, Air France, British Airways, and Emirates. Below is a complete list of OnAir partners:

  • Aeroflot – Russian Airlines
  • Aerolínaes Argentinas
  • Air Asia
  • ANA – All Nippon Airways
  • Azerbaijan Airlines
  • Azul Brazilian Airlines
  • AirFrance
  • British Airways
  • Cebu Pacific
  • EgyptAir
  • Emirates
  • Etihad Airways
  • Hong Kong Airlines
  • Iberia
  • LATAM Airlines
  • Libyan Airlines
  • Oman Air
  • Philippine Airlines
  • Qatar Airways
  • Royal Brunei Airlines
  • Royal Jordanian
  • Saudi
  • Singapore Airlines
  • Thai Airways
  • Vistara

Tip: Set up flight alerts with these airlines, and get notified when good deals arise with Airfarewatchdog now!

International roaming rates will apply when you connect to the roaming service. The prices are set by your home operator and will vastly vary between operators. These charges will be billed to you directly and not through AeroMobile or OnAir.

It is, therefore, recommended to contact your home provider to learn more about the service and charges before going abroad. Usually, you can learn about the fees from their website too.

For example, EE (UK) charges you 3 pounds per minute when calling (incoming and outgoing calls), and a single text message will cost you 1.20 pounds.

Telstra (Australia) will charge you 5 Australian Dollar (AUD) per minute to make or receive a call, 0.75 AUD to send SMS or MMS messages, and 3 AUD per MB.

Can I Make Phone Calls on Plane?

It depends on the destination you are going to and the airline. Even though AeroMobile allows users to make calls, individual airlines or aviation authorities may still put a ban on onboard phone calls.

The Civil Aviation Authority of New Zealand fined its transport minister Phil Twyford $500 (New Zealand Dollars – NZD) for his three-minute phone call while the plane was taxiing to the runway.

In the US, the Federal Communications Commission (FFC) has not overturned its 1991 ban on calls during flights.

The ban was put in place to prevent mobile frequencies from causing planes' electronic systems to malfunction.

A man making a phile call. Black and white picture.

Phone technology has progressed to a point where this is no longer a concern, but a phone off airplane mode can still cause audible interference on the aircraft’s radios. Luckily, this is more of an annoyance to pilots and not a lifethreatening situation.

In April 2017, the FFC announced that the 1991 ban would not be overturned (as intended in 2013) and that passengers have to wait until touchdown before they can make phone calls.

According to Ajit Pai, the current chairman of the FFC, “taking [the proposed overturn] off the table permanently will be a victory for Americans across the country who, like me, value a moment of quiet at 30 000 feet.”

At least when flying domestically in the US, you will not have to worry about anyone making loud phone calls onboard.

Does My Operator Offer Onboard Roaming Services?

If you are on an AeroMobile partnered airline, head to their website and type in your provider in the is my operator supported search bar. It will tell you whether they have a roaming agreement with your provider or not.

OnAir is another in-flight roaming facilitator. Unlike AeroMobile, you cannot check whether your provider offers inflight roaming with them. However, your provider may mention them on their roaming information page.

Is There a Cap on Onboard Roaming Charges?

Often, there is no data cap on inboard roaming. In 2018, a family from San Jose flying to Vietnam received a 13 470 USD bill from T-Mobile when their son's iPhone connected to the internet for half an hour.

Is Inflight Roaming Worth It?

With most providers, inflight roaming is expensive, even more expensive than regular Pay As You Go Roaming rates. Usually, if an airline offers in-flight roaming, they offer onboard WIFI too. You would be better off connecting to their WIFI hotspot than their roaming connection because onboard WIFI is much cheaper. Or you could stay offline for the duration of your flight – that is the cheapest option.

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