Satellite provider Inmarsat says Asia-Pacific region airlines are rapidly catching up with carriers in the United States with the provision of inflight Wi-Fi, as a new study shows growing demand for the service.

A survey done for the company shows that two-thirds (67 per cent) of Asia-Pacific passengers describe Wi-Fi on planes as crucial.

More than three-quarters would be more likely to rebook with an airline if high-quality Wi-Fi was available.

The global survey of more than 9000 people by British polling company Populus also found 53 per cent of them would be willing to sacrifice an alcoholic drink for Wi-Fi.


Senior vice president of Inmarsat Aviation, Frederik Van Essen, said the US led the way because of its concentration of ground transmitters, but the growth of bandwidth from satellites meant trans-oceanic routes could now be served more effectively and efficiently.

''The Asia-Pacific region is a tremendous growth region - the trend for inflight connectivity started in the United States some years ago and now the rest of the world is catching up,'' he said.

Australasian carriers are rolling out the service, with Qantas installing it on its domestic fleet, Virgin Australia on all aircraft and after trials, Air New Zealand has it on ''a handful'' of its Boeing 777 longhaul planes. Among other airlines serving New Zealand, Emirates, Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific have Wi-Fi.

Van Essen told the Herald satellite communication was more complex in the air than on the ground, and therefore always more expensive.

''There's been tremendous innovation which drives down the cost. It used to be only in the cockpit but now can be used throughout the plane.''

He said it made sense for both low cost and full service airlines, which were experimenting with how to pay for the service.

Some were charging in the ticket price, some were charging for different sessions and some had the service sponsored.

Airlines that rely heavily on ancillary revenue could provide free Wi-fi but clip the ticket on transactions that passengers made while flying.


''It's almost like the Amazon of things on board - you can get tickets for events at your destination at the last moment and there's a surcharge on the transaction. I think eventually things will head that way,'' said Van Essen.

Air New Zealand has experimented with pricing and currently offers up to 10 minutes free on all Wi-fi equipped flights. It charges up to $25 on longhaul routes and $10 for shorthaul trips. The airline initially charged $40 a sector which one disgruntled passenger said was like ''burning money.''

Van Essen said his London-based company had set up a special cyber-security base to prevent hacking.

Security was ''a rat race'' where you always tried to be one step ahead. There was currently a clear separation between what happened in the inflight entertainment domain and everything that was used to control the aircraft.

''What I'm hearing from Airbus and Boeing is that they are happy to keep them separate as well - they are afraid that someone will come in and hack aircraft in the sky.''

Inmarsat communication logs were used to trace the path of missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370.

"I think it was clearly a wakeup call for the industry'" said Van Essen. "On the back of MH370, our new cockpit communications system that we're now offering includes free 15 minute flight tracking.''

The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) is working towards mandating the global aeronautical distress and safety system, which he said would impose minimum requirements for flight tracking of all aircraft in the world.

''With that new system there's streaming of all flight data to the ground - we call that the black box in the cloud.''

Speaking on the sidelines of the International Air Transport Association annual meeting earlier this year, Van Essen said MH370 was a ''special case'' because the equipment was turned off in that aircraft.

A study has found more than half passengers would rather have Wi-fi than wine. Photo / Grant Bradley
A study has found more than half passengers would rather have Wi-fi than wine. Photo / Grant Bradley

A debate at ICAO level centred on whether it should be possible for anyone to turn off the equipment.

''Some pilots say that they need to control everything on the aircraft, for example during a fire they need to switch everything off, and you have people saying you need to have things turned on permanently like flight tracking.''

Inmarsat was established in the late 1970s. Among its competitors is US firm Gogo and Panasonic.

As well as entertainment, connectivity allowed real time monitoring of engines by their makers, while seats could also be monitored constantly for problems, so technicians and equipment could be made ready when an aircraft landed.