Electronics in Flight: How Harmful are Mobile Devices to Your Aircraft?

We all know the drill: before takeoff and landing the flight attendants do a final safety inspection, walking up and down the aisle to ensure everyone has their seat backs and tray tables up, seatbelts fastened and all electronic devices powered down. While this exercise has become second nature for most fliers, new policy changes could make mandatory shutting down of devices a thing of the past.

In October, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) lifted its ban on airline passengers using their smartphones, tablets, e-readers and other electronic gadgets below 10,000 feet, although downloading data, web searches and calls during takeoff are still prohibited. But mobile service may not be far behind. On December 12th, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will meet to review and decide whether or not to end restrictions on phone calls during flights. While none of the approved or pending changes will happen immediately, it is important to assess how they might impact users in flight, especially considering comfort, security, and other key factors.

From checking a bank account balance to finding a nearby Thai restaurant, mobile devices have permeated almost every aspect of our lives. Given the ubiquitous nature of mobile usage today, it’s no surprise that the governing bodies overseeing air travel are suddenly changing their tune with regards to electronics on airplanes. In 2003, 70% of passengers carried electronic devices with them on planes, and currently that number has jumped to an astounding 99% according to a survey by the Consumer Electronics Association. Aside from consumer pressure, lawmakers and even large companies like Amazon have been pushing the FAA to ease mobile device restrictions for years.

The original motivation behind the FAA’s restriction on the use of electronic devices below 10,000 feet stemmed from concerns around interference with aircraft systems during vulnerable periods like takeoff and landing. But, as aircrafts have become more advanced, the possibility of interference from a wayward smartphone or tablet have become much less of a reality. The risk is in fact quite low, and researchers come up short when looking for instances when “electromagnetic interference from a portable electronic device brought down a commercial plane or was a contributing factor in an accident,” nor has the National Transportation Safety Board ever issued a recommendation about the safety issues of using mobile devices in non-transmitting modes during takeoff. Additionally, an FAA panel last year called to study just this issue concluded that most commercial airplanes are equipped to deal with radio signals.

However, some pilots continue to report cases of suspected interference, and electronic devices can still cause more work for the crew during flight aside from safety concerns. On top of having to badger passengers to power down their devices, they have the potential to be disruptive to everyone around them—even without the noise of people on calls in such a confined space.

Although the fate of phone calls on U.S. airlines is still up in the air, the reaction to the possibility has been anything but positive, with petitions being created and grumblings heard almost immediately after the announcement. In today’s mobile world, airplanes are one of the few places free from mobile call chatter and many people are not excited about losing that time of relative silence, especially considering the already stressful nature of air travel. The Association of Flight Attendants are among those voicing concern for this possible rule change and some airlines like Delta, will stand staunchly behind the no mobile phone policy regardless of the FCC’s decision.

On top of passenger discomfort, there could also be some serious mobile security risks associated with mobile device calls on planes. Earlier this year at the Hack In The Box conference in Amsterdam, security consultant Hugo Teso demonstrated how to hack an airplane using an Android app he created called PlaneSploit. With the app, he claimed to be able to take control of certain aircraft systems and cause them to change direction and even crash into the ground, revealing some unsettling weaknesses in onboard flight systems. Despite the FAA’s assurances that the hacking technique used at the conference does not pose a real threat to flight safety, possible security risks from mobile devices should not be ignored. There are new threats targeting all kinds of “smart” devices today, from TVs to cars, and an aircraft’s autopilot system or other controls are no different.

Hundreds of thousands of passengers each day use their favorite mobile gadgets aboard airplanes, meaning any risks to aviation safety must be assessed in advance. Besides the attack demonstrated by Hugo Teso, Wi-Fi hacking and other cybercrimes previously restricted to the ground could now affect passengers thousands of feet in the air. Currently, companies like Gogo Inc. and Row 44 provide Internet access on some major airlines, and pending the FCC’s decision, will soon offer services for sending and receiving text messages or making phone calls using Wi-Fi. Downloading content on mobile devices accounts for a major part of their usage, and without the proper precautions, users could pick up unwanted malware or be tricked into paying for and using spoofed networks mid-flight.

While in-flight mobile phone calls are still out of reach, seamless device usage on airplanes could happen as early as January 2014. In the meantime, users should already be practicing safe mobile habits, especially when traveling.

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