In 2014, Emirates pledged to make inflight Internet a free service for every passenger – and while that was a nice promise, the reality of up to 615 passengers connecting to a single WiFi hotspot at the same time often saw download speeds grind to a halt, making the entire service literally unusable.
Australian Business Traveller previously reviewed Emirates' Airbus A380 inflight Internet just months after it was unleashed as a 'free for all', and to be frank, with wait times of a staggering 29 minutes – yes, minutes, not seconds – just to load something basic like gmail.com, we struggled to see the point.
We also flagged that the service would work much better if people actually had to pay, and fortunately, Emirates tweaked its inflight WiFi offering earlier this year to pare back the number of travellers who could surf for free, and introduced higher access charges for everybody else to lighten the load.
On recent flights from Sydney to Dubai and then Dubai to Brisbane, we took the chance to put Emirates' latest WiFi service to the test: here's what you need to know, and how we found the speeds this time around.
Emirates' Airbus A380 inflight Internet: plans
All travellers – whether perched up front in first class or down the back in economy – receive at least 20MB of complimentary Internet access or two hours of connectivity per device, whichever comes first.
From there, further access depends on your frequent flyer status in the Emirates Skywards scheme, and where you're sitting on board.
Pricing for Skywards members is as follows, when travelling in:
- First class or business class (all Skywards members): Unlimited time and data for the entire flight, complimentary
- Economy (Skywards Platinum, Gold): Unlimited access, also complimentary
- Economy (Skywards Silver): Up to 150MB of data for US$4.99 (A$6.60), or up to 500MB of data for US$7.99 (A$10.55)
- Economy (Skywards Blue): Up to 150MB of data for US$6.99 (A$9.20), or up to 500MB of data for US$10.99 (A$14.50)
However, Emirates' WiFi portal oddly doesn't recognise Qantas Frequent Flyer status, so if you're earning Qantas Points on your flight instead of Skywards miles as many Aussie travellers would be, you'll only get 20MB of data for free and will then need to purchase a plan at full price, as follows:
- Up to 150MB of data (no time limit): US$9.99 (A$13.16)
- Up to 500MB of data (no time limit): US$15.99 (A$21.05)
Although membership in the Skywards scheme is free and all members begin at the Blue level, you can't simply key in your Skywards number to get the discount: if it's not linked to your booking, you'll pay full price – trust us, we tried!
While we do like that Emirates has moved away from the 'US$1 for everybody' plans which often saw Internet speeds grind to a halt, it's unfortunate that Qantas Frequent Flyer members don't receive the same treatment as Emirates Skywards members, and have to shell out for the full-price plans to get online, even if flying in business or first class.
(A trick here when travelling on an Emirates reward flight booked with Qantas Points would be to whack your Skywards number onto the ticket – as opposed to your Qantas membership number, given that reward flights don't earn points or status credits anyway – to avail of the reduced or complimentary plans for Skywards members.)
Forgotten to attach your Skywards number to your flight before take-off? You'll also need to pay full price, so when you receive your boarding pass for your flight, make sure your frequent flyer number appears, otherwise the system won't recognise that you're on board.
However, if you do purchase a plan on one device, you can log in on another device to continue browsing: and don't forget that the 20MB freebie for all travellers is per device, not per passenger, wink wink...
Emirates' Airbus A380 inflight Internet: getting online
Get started by flicking your device into flight mode, and then enable WiFi, connect to the 'OnAir' hotspot and open your web browser.
Normally, the service becomes available once your aircraft reaches 10,000 feet, so if you see the screen below, come back later and try again:
If your Emirates Skywards number is linked to your booking, you can log in here to enjoy either complimentary access or a reduced-priced plan, depending on whether you're flying in first class, business class or economy:
(You'll need to know the Skywards password attached to your account as well. as there's no option to reset that password via this portal.)
Otherwise, click on the Guest tab to see the plans available to you. Even if you were going to purchase one of the higher-tier plans, the free 20MB option is a great way to quickly check the connection and make sure it's performing fast enough for your needs, before committing to that purchase.
Choose the 20MB plan and you'll be connected to the Internet in no time at all...
... and once online, the same window provides a handy usage meter so that you can keep track of your consumption, and also a 'pause' button which enables you to prevent your data from being chewed up by background applications or requests when you don't need to be online, such as when writing an email:
When the 20MB freebie is up, you'll see this screen...
... before being given the option to purchase further access:
If you do need to reach for your credit card, the WiFi portal accepts Visa, Mastercard, American Express, Diners Club, Discover and JCB cards and processes transactions in US dollars.
Emirates' Airbus A380 inflight Internet: coverage
Because this Internet connection is satellite-based and Emirates operates a large number of WiFi-equipped Airbus A380 jets (and Boeing 777s as well), the restrictions on where you can and can't use the service seemingly vary from aircraft to aircraft.
For example, on our Sydney-Dubai Airbus A380 flight, the following coverage map was provided, with service available everywhere except for airspace marked in red:
However, on our Dubai-Brisbane flight – which was also served by an Airbus A380 – connectivity was notably not available in Indian airspace...
... with the system automatically blocking connections in that zone:
That's not the only thing that can impact your browsing ability – because the aircraft has a single Internet connection to the satellite which is shared between every passenger on the aircraft, the more passengers that are online, the slower the Internet becomes.
We like that Emirates now tells you how many other travellers are online before you purchase a plan (or choose to use your one-off 20MB freebie), as the WiFi logo at the top of the portal changes colour depending on usage.
For instance, on our flight it was green when few others were connected...
... changing to amber when more jumped online...
... and going red when the service proved even more popular:
Just keep in mind that this isn't necessarily a perfect indicator of speed, as connections in the airspace within a few hours of departing from or arriving into Dubai can be quite slow.
Emirates' Airbus A380 inflight Internet: surfing speeds
So how fast is Emirates' inflight WiFi, exactly?
Well, the word 'fast' still doesn't really come into it: the best speeds we achieved on our Sydney-Dubai journey saw downloads of 1.17Mbps, uploads of 0.33Mbps and ping speeds of 1003ms.
That's somewhat acceptable for basic browsing and text-based messaging (such as iMessage and Facebook Messenger), but you'd be waiting a while for your inbox to sync or to send a file across to a colleague.
On our flight home to Brisbane, the connection was so slow that we weren't able to run a speed test at all, but it again proved usable for those same basic tasks – and that's significantly better than we experienced a couple of years back on the same flight, where so many travellers were trying to connect for free under the old scheme that the connection stopped working entirely!
Given the choice between an Internet connection that's slow but functional, or one that doesn't work at all, it's clear which is the winner – and while Emirates may now be charging some travellers more for their time online, the fact that the service now actually works for those who want to use it is clearly a significant improvement over the previous scenario.
Chris Chamberlin travelled to Dubai as a guest of Emirates.