Wifi connectivity is set to come to a plane journey near you if you fly Lufthansa mid-haul routes from 2014, according to news from businesstraveller.com 10/09/2013. Wifi capable planes are a trend still gathering pace across the entire aviation industry since 2009. The upside to installing Wifi to replace or complement current IFE (In-Flight Entertainment) offerings are cost savings, convenience and a better customer experience. What is not being considered is the health risk Wifi poses to fliers at altitude. This threat concerns all fliers, is real and could potentially be worse than smoking on airplanes was in the 1970's. The question is, does Wifi really serve the interests of fliers long-term?
The confined space of the aircraft cabin is already deficient in oxygen at altitude. Once it is pressurized to about 8000 feet it is positively charged and dry. Barometric pressure is 760 mm Hg at sea level with a corresponding PaO2 (arterial O2 pressure) of 98 mm Hg, the barometric pressure at 8000 feet will be 565 mm Hg with PaO2 of about 55 mm Hg. (Medical Guidelines For Airline Travel 2nd Edition, 3) At altitude with less oxygen to shield fliers, more emissions and Wifi signals, the cabin environment becomes even more hostile to health.
As inconvenient as it is fliers are exposed to greater levels of cosmic radiation at altitude. Proximity to the sea-level is a factor known to protect us from cosmic radiation's negative effects for a number of reasons. Besides oxygen density one of these other reasons is the protective field the Earth emanates. In fact it is the distinct disconnection from the influence of this field that contributes to the experience of jet lag for fliers. Adding Wifi at altitude further degrades the flying environment without the protections we take for granted on the ground.
From airliners perspective it is easy to see why Wifi makes sense. Potential fuel economy from less weight from wiring and equipment to each seat adds up. Less engineering maintenance hours and a positive customer experience may also feature in the airlines consideration. However the bottom-line for airlines is does it make them more competitive? To be fair it is not necessarily a straightforward proposition for airlines. One European carrier has gone from consistently intimating it has no plans to introduce Wifi on its fleet to saying it "is closely monitoring developments... " (D'Cruze), shortly after Ofcom regulators announced a game-changer satellite consultation. Passenger demands are also a factor. As more passengers experience the convenience of Wifi on other carriers they are prone to expect it as standard. While we all love convenience we shouldn't make it the only measure of its merits.
The airlines and the industry need to manage fliers expectations better. Managing expectations will only happen if fliers are better informed about the conditions in which they fly and particularly about the changes the cabin environment undergoes through pressurization. Because the cabin environment looks the same during every phase of flight does not mean it is. This is the key factor that makes Wifi a bad idea. The more airlines have this conversation with fliers the better an informed decision about the true cost of Wifi in the sky can be reached. Sacrificing health for convenience or profit in the long-term view is unsustainable.