How Secure Are Airline Wi-FI Networks?

by joeheg

I remember when flying was a time to unplug and relax. I used to catch up on some movies or read a book when on a plane, but now I’m more likely working. With Wi-Fi service available on most flights, being in the air is no longer an excuse for not finishing an article.

While I wouldn’t think about logging into a public Wi-Fi network in a Starbucks, airport lounge or hotel without a VPN, I’ve logged into multiple airplanes’ Wi-Fi networks and worked like I was at home. I mean, I had to pay to get access, so it must be safe, right?


Turns out that the Wi-Fi networks on planes aren’t any more private than other public Wi-Fi networks. Just because you’re in the air doesn’t mean your data can’t be stolen. The only caveat is that the data thief has to be on the same flight.

The vulnerability of airborne Wi-Fi networks was brought to light when a reporter’s emails were hacked during a flight by the passenger sitting in the row behind him. The resulting story in USA Today showed everyone that airplane Wi-Fi networks aren’t secure. A Gogo representative (Gogo was the Wi-Fi provider for the flight) confirmed it:

In fact, as Steve Nolan, Gogo’s vice president of communications, told me, the service is “public” and “operates in the same ways as most open Wi-Fi hotspots on the ground.” He cautioned against “accessing sensitive materials while in flight.”

That was 2016, and things haven’t changed much since.


So, what if you have to work on a flight but need to ensure the security of your data?

Fortunately, the tips to protect yourself in the air are the same as what you’d do when on the ground. I found an article called “How to Protect Yourself When Using Wi-Fi on an Airplane,” and the tips are solid.

One tip is to make sure you’re using a VPN when on a public network, including those on airplanes. I’ve had problems with getting kicked off airplane Wi-Fi networks when turning on my VPN. I’m happy to say that I’ve solved the problem by enabling my VPN’s stealth mode. TunnelBear’s stealth mode is called GhostBear, and most VPNs have a similar setting.

One newer piece of advice is to turn off auto-connect to Wi-Fi networks. This means you’ll have to select the network to connect to from your settings, but this one extra step will keep you from connecting to a rogue network.

The other way to keep your data safe when on a plane is to invest in a privacy screen. Without it, the person in the seat next to you, behind you or just the person walking back from the lavatory, can read everything you’re working on. No matter how secure your laptop’s encryption is, it doesn’t matter if anyone can look at your screen and see what you’re doing.

Don’t get lulled into a false sense of security when on a plane. You have no idea who is on your flight, and just because you’re up in the air doesn’t mean you’re safe from hackers.

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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary


Kolumb86 April 16, 2020 - 6:58 am

When connecting to the public Wi-Fi VPN`s is essential to protect your data, good thing there are VPN`s who are ready to protect your data some of them even for free. I am using atlas and so far no problems at all.

derek January 2, 2022 - 9:50 pm

Is it reasonably safe to just not look at your email, instead reading the news and Instagram?

Miles May 29, 2023 - 9:08 pm

It looks like Mozilla VPN is one of those that does not have Stealth mode. Dang!

joeheg May 29, 2023 - 10:41 pm

They might not but Mozilla VPN does have a feature to log in to captive portals.


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