TAMPA, Fla. — Delta Air Lines has picked Hughes Network Systems to upgrade the Wi-Fi on around 400 Boeing 717 and smaller regional jets serving North America that currently use Intelsat’s inflight connectivity (IFC) services.

The IFC deal, the first Hughes has made directly with an airline despite operating in the aviation connectivity market for over a decade, sees the broadband operator join Viasat, which Delta has installed on more than 600 mainline aircraft to date.

Reza Rasoulian, vice president of broadband satellite services at Hughes, said work will begin in mid-2024 to install antennas that would be compatible with the company’s Ka-band network in geostationary orbit (GEO), including its colossal Jupiter-3 satellite set to enter service by the end of the year.

The antennas, supplied by ThinKom, would also be compatible with future non-geostationary (NGSO) constellations operating in Ka-band, Rasoulian said, such as Telesat Lightspeed and SES O3b mPower.

He declined to discuss performance statistics, but said Hughes would have the capacity to enable every person on planes carrying 70 to 117 passengers to stream Netflix simultaneously. 

This level of bring-your-own-device inflight streaming was not possible under the air-to-ground service Intelsat was providing, which connects to cell towers instead of satellites.

Intelsat declined to comment. 

All of Intelsat’s air-to-ground systems are set to be replaced for U.S. airline regional jet aircraft by the end of 2025 to move toward higher-bandwidth satellite solutions, where Intelsat has also had success in recent months in deals with Alaska Airlines and Air Canada. These airlines plan to use an antenna that could connect to Intelsat’s GEO network in addition to OneWeb’s NGSO constellation in Ku-band. 

Delta recorded 938 mainline aircraft and 326 regional planes operated by companies on its behalf as of Sept. 30 — one of the largest commercial fleets in the world.

Delta spokesperson Grant Myatt said all of Delta’s mainline aircraft — with the exception of the 74 Boeing 717s currently in the fleet — are being equipped with Viasat, and all regional aircraft will use Hughes.

By the end of 2024, Myatt said Delta would have upgraded Wi-Fi capabilities across the entire fleet to offer fast, free Wi-Fi.

The company conducted exploratory tests with SpaceX’s Starlink constellation last year but has not moved forward with any deal. 

Starlink’s emerging aviation service is seen as a growing threat to legacy IFC providers as it ramps up contracts with airlines, including regional jet service provider JSX which is currently offering a service boasting Wi-Fi speeds of up to 350 megabits per second.

Qatar Airways became the largest airline to announce plans to use Starlink Oct. 13, although their partnership is at a very early stage and no date was given for the start of services.

Jason Rainbow writes about satellite telecom, space finance and commercial markets for SpaceNews. He has spent more than a decade covering the global space industry as a business journalist. Previously, he was Group Editor-in-Chief for Finance Information...