January 10, 2012
The race to install in-flight WiFi access on planes has taken a turn for the worse as Canadian regulators give the okay for trials to proceed. Up until now Canadian authorities had prohibited the use of WiFi-enabled devices in its airspace. Authorizing the use of WiFi devices poses questions on a range of issues including health, safety and technology. Canada is not the first in North America to wrestle with the question of in-flight Wifi. As the trend continues it probably will not be the last, but no one is asking the hard questions that impact all fliers. Canadian airlines may look across the border at American carriers and the potential revenue streams they earn from Wifi, however opting for Wifi on this basis alone would be at the wider expense of the health of all travelers.
The problem with being an early adopter of a new technology is that you get all the kinks and imperfections. Wifi as we know it has only just begun to become commonplace, yet controversy about the health of this technology is mounting. The dangers associated with Wifi stem from the signals used to send the data. Wifi signals use electromagnetic energy in the form of ionizing radiation to transmit. Scientists in diverse fields are concluding that ionizing radiation is bad for us and our environment. As yet no one has conclusively proven that ionizing radiation is safe to humans at any dose level. On the contrary, the National Academy of Sciences has research dating back to the 1990s which says low dose ionizing radiation is dangerous to human health. Fliers have always had the problem of being exposed to cosmic radiation from outer space. If airlines continue to install Wifi, passengers will have the added problem of being exposed to the additional radiation Wifi generates in a confined space. The environment on planes is dry, oxygen-deficient and humid at the best of times, Wifi in the air will only make it worse.
Besides the threat of increased radiation safety issues are also an added challenge. The Canadian authorities did issue a statement saying all crews will be properly trained on the emergency and safety procedures required should Wifi be rolled out. Notwithstanding, as the use of lightweight entertainment devices increases with Wifi so does the fire risk. It is not uncommon to see people charging laptops and falling asleep when they have been told not to, this is big fire hazard. If there is one particular kind of emergency flight crews hate, it is fire, as the critical time to land the plane can be the difference between life and death.
The announcement requesting passengers not to turn on mobile phones until engine shut down is given to avoid phones interfering with aircraft instruments. In-flight Wifi raises concerns here because different devices may use different signals. Some devices may be more liable to cause interference than others thus endangering the plane mid-air.
Transport Canada says it will monitor the trials and come to a decision in due course.
Sources for this article include:
National Academy of Science -
The BioInitiative Report