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But despite its web of partnerships and providers, in-flight connectivity (or IFC) is an increasingly valuable slice of the growing satellite communications pie – with estimates calling for IFC revenue to effectively double to over $3 billion a year in less than a decade.

And U.S. airlines have been heavily investing in satellite-based Wi-Fi: Delta last year started offering it for free to frequent fliers, JetBlue’s long offered it for free, and Spirit Airlines finished its Wi-Fi rollout in 2022. My desk neighbor and CNBC’s inimitable airline reporter Leslie Josephs, who kindly chipped in to this newsletter with her beat’s side of the story, recently paid $19.99 for Wi-Fi on a cross-country Spirit flight – service she noted was fast enough for an hour-long video call.

The last couple years have seen a flurry of IFC deals announced by airlines and satellite operators alike. Taking a quick look at the world’s largest commercial aircraft fleets, and cross-checking that against which satellites those airlines rely on, you find that Intelsat and Viasat largely dominate in deals with the top 25 or so global airlines, which together have over 7,000 planes.

Adding high-speed Wi-Fi to planes, especially for U.S. carriers, is a time-intensive process that requires FAA certificates for each type of aircraft before the terminals can get installed onboard. That’s part of where the IFC market-share messiness comes from, as deals are usually structured around installing the service on a set number of an airline’s existing or ordered aircraft types. 

Take United Airlines for example: Viasat provides service to United’s many Boeing 737 aircraft over North America and Europe, while Intelsat (having acquired Gogo’s commercial aviation business) provides service to United’s smaller Embraer regional jets over much of North America.

But the rowdy new kid on the block, SpaceX’s Starlink, is starting to chip away at the IFC market. It’s begun rolling out service to Hawaiian Airlines, which didn’t previously have Wi-Fi on its planes. Last year Starlink also announced a deal with Qatar Airways, which had previous deals with Viasat. Starlink is taking Viasat’s spot on “the entire Qatar Airways fleet,” which currently represents some 228 planes.

Starlink continues to elbow its way into more industry verticals. At the same time, adoption of satellite IFC services continues to grow. (Viasat just struck a deal with Icelandair this week.) 

As is typical with corporate sales, the financial value of these deals is often not disclosed. But perhaps more important these days, as airlines trip over each other to buy more planes and add Wi-Fi, is the length of those agreements. As evidenced by Qatar Airways, and the mosh pit of the IFC sector’s service arrangements, the frothiness of this marketplace may just be getting underway.

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