The trend that’s great for airlines but not so good for aviators


Wi-Fi connectivity is about to come to air travel near you if you take Lufthansa mid-haul routes from 2014, according to news 9/10/2013. WiFi-enabled aircraft are a trend that is still accelerating throughout the aviation industry since 2009. The advantages of installing WiFi to replace or supplement current IFE (In-Flight Entertainment) offers are the savings of costs, convenience and a better customer experience. What is not taken into account is the health risk that WiFi poses to airmen at altitude. This threat affects all aviators, is real, and could be worse than smoking on planes in the 1970s. The question is, does WiFi really serve the interests of long-term travelers?

The confined space of the aircraft cabin is already deficient in oxygen at altitude. Once it is pressurized to around 8,000 feet, it is positively charged and dry. The barometric pressure is 760 mm Hg at sea level with a corresponding PaO2 (O2 blood pressure) of 98 mm Hg, the barometric pressure at 8000 feet will be 565 mm Hg with a PaO2 of approximately 55 mm Hg. (Guidelines Medical for Air Travel, 2nd Edition, 3) At altitude with less oxygen to protect passengers, more emissions and WiFi signals, the cabin environment becomes even more hostile to health.

As troublesome as it may sound, airmen are exposed to higher levels of cosmic radiation at altitude. Proximity to sea level is a factor known to protect us from the negative effects of cosmic radiation for a number of reasons. Besides the density of oxygen, one of these other reasons is the protective field emanating from the Earth. In fact, it is the distinct disconnect from the influence of this field that contributes to the experience of jet lag for Airmen. The addition of WiFi at altitude further degrades the flight environment without the protections we take for granted on the ground.

From an airliner perspective, it’s easy to see why WiFi makes sense. The potential fuel savings from reducing the weight of wiring and equipment at each seat adds up. Fewer hours of technical maintenance and a positive customer experience can also be a consideration for airlines. However, the main thing for airlines is that it makes them more competitive? To be fair, this is not necessarily a straightforward proposition for airlines. A European operator went from the fact that he did not intend to introduce Wifi on his fleet to say that he “is closely monitoring developments …” (D’Cruze), shortly after as Ofcom regulators have announced a game-changing satellite consultation. Passenger demands are also a factor. As more and more passengers enjoy the convenience of WiFi on other carriers, they are likely to expect it as standard. While we all love convenience, we shouldn’t make it the only measure of its merits.

Airlines and industry need to better manage the expectations of travelers. Managing waits will only happen if Airmen are better informed about the conditions in which they are flying and in particular about the changes that the cabin environment undergoes by pressurization. Just because the cabin environment is the same at every phase of flight doesn’t mean it is. This is the key factor that makes WiFi a bad idea. The more airlines have this conversation with aviators, the better an informed decision will be about the true cost of WiFi in the sky. Sacrificing health for convenience or long-term profit is not sustainable.

The references

Business traveler 09/10/2013

Air Travel Medical Guidelines, 2nd Edition, page 3

D’Cruze, BusinessTraveller 08/21/2013


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