New generation aircraft face increased cyber threat

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The latest generation in aircraft face a growing cyber threat, as they are increasingly connected to data networks and the internet.

These aircraft, which include the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787, have more data uplinks and downlinks, and are often equipped with passenger wi-fi systems, that create possible opportunities for cyber terrorists, panellists say at International Air Transport Association's (IATA) AVSEC aviation security conference in New York today.

"What worries me is the challenge that I'm not too sure that we've got the right handle on the catastrophic end of what we could be facing," says Steve Jackson, group head of security and facilitation at Qantas Airways, at the conference. He says that someone could potentially hack into an aircraft network over the internet from their home.

Michael Garrett, director of aviation security in the commercial airplanes division of Boeing, says that the airframer has plans in place to protect both the 787 and 747-8 from cyber threats, on the sidelines of the conference. The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have approved these plans, he adds.

Boeing provides guidance to airlines on how to protect against cyber threats, says Garrett, but he agrees that it is up to the airline on how they implement this guidance.

"The airline has to certify with the regulator that they're doing the training and maintaining the aircraft," he says.

Wi-fi connectivity is one area of concern for Qantas. Jackson says that turning on the service "opens everything up" in regards to aircraft systems. The airline has chosen not to activate the service until it fully understands the vulnerabilities created by inflight wi-fi.

"This is where the intersection of customer experience and flight safety all need to come together and coalesce," he says.

Jackson says it hopes to start offering inflight wi-fi connectivity in the "next few months" but certainly by the end of 2013.

Airlines that currently offer inflight wi-fi to passengers include Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines, United Airlines and US Airways.