Tag Archives: aviation

United Airlines shut down after computer glitch


WASHINGTON – Bill Graham had just boarded a United Airlines flight to Boston at Washington Dulles International Airport when United experienced an airline-wide computer glitch, grounding 3,500 flights nationwide.

“We were sitting on the plane and the technology went down for all of United,” said Graham, who said he waited over two hours on the tarmac before passengers were allowed to get off the plane. “Everyone was pissed.”

Graham added he was thankful his flight was not in the air when the technology shutdown happened.

A technology executive from Washington, Graham missed the business meeting he was scheduled to attend because of delays associated with the flight grounding. To avoid long lines for flight waivers at Dulles, Graham rebooked another flight himself out of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

“Because I guess that’s the best option. So I drove here and now I hope this flight’s on time,” Graham said.

Around 9:30 a.m. the Federal Aviation Administration’s air traffic control command center issued a ground stop for United flights due to an automation issue. Thirty minutes later, the FAA lifted the ground stop and said that that the automation issue had been resolved.

But the effects were already being felt in the flight cancellations and delays rippling across the country.

A contractor who handles baggage for United Airlines at Reagan and spoke on the condition of anonymity said gate agents for United wrote out tickets and luggage tags by hand while computer systems were down.

Customers in the United line at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport said they were “absolutely concerned” about flying the same day as the massive glitch, and were skeptical that a computer glitch could have had such a massive effect.

“I was so nervous when I watched the TV and heard the news,” said Erica Gill, a D.C. resident in line to check in for a flight to Detroit. “But I don’t know about the computer glitch. I know they’re a major corporation. But they had enough connectivity to tweet out that they were delayed. I don’t know how much I believe them.”

In a statement, United confirmed this wasn’t a hacking or cyberattack, and said it would issue flight waivers for passengers affected by grounded flights.

“We experienced a network connectivity issue this morning. We are working to resolve this and apologize to our customers for any inconvenience,” a United spokesperson said.

At 8:43 a.m., United tweeted “We’re recovering from a network connectivity issue & restoring flight ops. We’ll have a waiver on united.com to change flights.”

Brynn Olson, a Navy public affairs officer whose United flight from D.C. to Houston was delayed an hour and a half, worried about the sensitivities of airline computer systems.

“I’m surprised that computers shut down the whole thing, but I guess that’s today’s world,” said Olson, who said she learned of the flight grounding and delays not from the airline, but from TV and radio reports.

“You’ve got a computer-based system, and everything’s done over electronics today, so it wouldn’t be unrealistic,” said Greg Bamford, a Marine helicopter pilot flying United to Alaska, about the computer glitch.

While the check-in lines for United at Reagan dwindled by midday, aviation experts said that delays could have a snowball effect triggering flight delays for other airlines, and that resuming normal operations may take 48 hours.

Experts: Commercial airliners need air gap for cyberprotection (video)

WASHINGTON – At a time when cybersecurity is at the forefront of many Americans’ minds, that manufacturing companies are producing commercial planes that experts say are more likely to be hacked than previous versions.

Recently a cybersecurity expert was pulled off a United Airlines flight after tweeting that he had the ability to access the plane’s systems, such as control of the oxygen masks on board.

The expert, Chris Roberts, was then taken into FBI custody and questioned for hours.

While Roberts says he was not attempting to harm anyone on board, the event drew attention worldwide to possible gaps in security onboard commercial flights with in-flight Wi-Fi.

According to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office, there is more connectivity in the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 between cockpit and cabin Wi-Fi systems than in previous models.

Aaron Rinehart, CEO of cybersecurity company Testbed Inc. and a former security expert for the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, says that this is a step backward in terms of security and safety.


Rinehart says cockpit systems should be air gapped, meaning that the system is physically isolated from all unsecured computer networks, including the in-flight entertainment system onboard. This disconnects the cockpit from outside systems to prevent hackers from accessing it.

“It doesn’t seem to me either logical or rational to combine in-flight Wi-Fi with the avionics systems,” Rinehart said.

Why anyone would combine these systems and take the extra risk isn’t clear.

“My guess would be they want to combine the signal and maybe just either save money or save the amount of power because all those antennas require power,” he said.

“If there’s multiple antennas [putting off] separate signals, it may require more power for that… which to me represents a considerable threat.”

In its report, the GAO found that firewalls are currently protecting avionics systems on planes from hacks, but, like any software, firewalls don’t always prevent attacks on networked systems.

Rinehart says the systems should remain completely separate to avoid problems, including downed airliners.

What do the airlines say about this, especially United, since they’re the ones that pulled Roberts off the plane?

Although the argument can be made that it is difficult to hack into a plane’s avionics system and launch such an attack, experts say the threat of malicious activities grows along with increased connectivity.

For example, Macworld recently reported that American Airlines’ fleet of Boeing 737 aircrafts experienced a glitch in an iPad app used by pilots in their cockpits. This caused all of the fleet’s iPads to go dead at once and leaving passengers delayed for hours at airports across the country.

According to Rinehart, if it were decided that all systems needed to be air gapped, planes can be retrofitted with these systems, but it is easier to design with air gapping in mind in the beginning while factoring in the cost.

“We’ve already had enough [problems] in the past two years,” he said. “Our regulatory authorities don’t need to contribute to that.”

FAA considers support of commercial drone use, with exemptions

The Persistent Aerial Reconnaissance and Communications vehicle system.  (Courtesy of CyPhy Works)

The Persistent Aerial Reconnaissance and Communications vehicle system. (Courtesy of CyPhy Works)


WASHINGTON—Drones aren’t on their way – they’re already here. But they’re not technically legal, at least not where commercial and hobbyist use are concerned. So what exactly are people hoping to do with them, and how is the government planning to regulate it?

This past February, the Federal Aviation Administration released a set of proposed rules to govern the commercial use of small unmanned aircraft systems under 55 pounds, and then opened a 60-day commentary period. That has expired, but the FAA never set a date for a final version, and experts say the waiting game could last two years, possibly longer.

Meanwhile, unmanned aircraft system technology is advancing at a rapid pace, a fact not lost on Robert Pappas, whose team coordinates Unmanned Vehicle policy for the FAA. He said his office is trying to work with various government agencies and the private sector to ensure drones are used safely, both now and once a final set of rules are released.

The agency’s current priorities, Pappas said, are improving safety requirements and streamlining certifications and exemptions. Not at the top of the list: preventing the tiny unmanned vehicles from being used for illicit surveillance purposes – or even as part of a terrorist attack.

And that’s surprising, considering recent incidents. In the early hours of January 26, an employee of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency crashed an illegal drone onto the White House lawn, completely undetected by radar. What that drone could have done – or carried with it – is something best left to the imagination.

“We’ve seen a rise in UAS operations in the national air space over the last few years,” Pappas said, referencing an existing exemption process which helps the private sector “pursue some potential relief” from the current ban. Pappas grants exemptions to the existing “no commercial use rule” on a case-by-case basis, governed by Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.

Speaking at a discussion on civil drone policy sponsored by the Center for Strategic & International Studies in late April, Pappas said that Section 333 demand remains consistently and “remarkably high.”

Pappas said his division has issued close to 250 exemptions in the last seven months alone, and is “now issuing dozens on a weekly basis,” many of them to commercial entities so that they can use UASs for aerial photography, survey and film production.

According to Pappas, the UAS Integration Office is working internationally to develop standards, approaches and frameworks for commercial guidance in light of recent technological advances. “We continue to see new and novel applications” for drone use, Pappas said, including survey and photo capabilities in the real estate and property management sectors. He said he has received exemption requests for aircraft with unusual power sources and rotors, as well as for nighttime operations, which the proposed framework excludes for safety reasons. Permission to operate outside line-of-sight constraints, which currently require that operators maintain visual contact with their drones at all times, is also a frequent request, he said.

In theory, the potential capabilities of drones are infinite, a point made by Brian Wynne, CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, at the CSIS panel. “There are going to be as many devices as you can imagine missions going forward,” he said.

And the FAA’s response to date has been all about flexibility. In a press release timed with the release of the proposed rules, FAA administrator Michael Huerta said, “We have tried to be flexible in writing these rules. We want to maintain today’s outstanding level of aviation safety without placing an undue regulatory burden on an emerging industry.”

Drone advocate Patrick Egan, who helps manage an international organization dedicated to capturing news related to UASs, said that “flexible” doesn’t begin to describe the FAA’s proposed framework and approach. He offered a better word for it: “liberal,” as in accommodating.

Egan, a former consultant with the Space and Missile Defense Command Battle Lab where he worked on future warfare research projects said he was initially surprised by how generous the proposed rules were – even if they aren’t yet final. And from what he’s heard, the drone community feels the same way.

“As a community, we got a gift,” Egan said. “[These rules are] way, way more progressive than we could have really hoped for.” Egan said that in his opinion, the FAA may have even been more generous than they should have, in terms of not instituting formal licensing requirements and granting a weight limit as large as 55 pounds.

Aviation lawyer: Gyrocopter stunt pilot probably ‘doing time’

WASHINGTON — It’s a balloon! It’s a kite! It’s a … gyrocopter?

The Secret Service completely mistook a blip on their radar systems for an innocent toy last month until it landed on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol. Then they saw it for what it really was: a disgruntled U.S. postal worker from Florida in a one-man flying machine. He had 535 letters with him demanding campaign finance reform – one for each member of Congress.

By then Douglas Hughes, 61, had breached three major no-fly zones, crossing through some of the most protected airspace in the country. And though he had broken federal law, he was admittedly unapologetic, alternately seen as a hero, a crank or an activist.

Last week, things suddenly got far more serious; a federal grand jury indicted Hughes on six criminal counts. Two of them are felonies – flying without a pilot’s license and failure to register an aircraft – and the other four are misdemeanors related to violating national airspace and operating a vehicle falsely labeled as a postal carrier.

Hughes holds another label: alleged criminal.

According to Hughes, his self-proclaimed “Freedom Flight” from Gettysburg to Washington, D.C. on April 15 was part of a longtime protest against existing campaign finance laws. A man on a mission, Hughes said he wanted to raise awareness about corruption on Capitol Hill.

“He’s going to face jail time and he’s going to do it,” said Joe Lamonaca, a Delaware-based attorney specializing in domestic and international aviation law. Lamonaca is not part of Hughes’ legal team, although he has been following the case and believes conviction is likely if it goes to trial.

The fact that Hughes intentionally flew into P-56 airspace, the designation for prohibited airspace surrounding the Capitol and White House, is without question, Lamonaca said. And that airspace belongs to the Secret Service – not the Federal Aviation Administration: “That’s the holy grail of all prohibited airspace in the country.”

“And it’s actually not restricted,” he added. “It’s prohibited – which means no flight under any circumstances.”

A gyrocopter resembles a helicopter, except that its rotating blade is propelled by air flow, rather than an engine. It’s also much lighter, smaller and incapable of hovering the way a helicopter does.

Hughes’ stunt was planned years in advance and widely discussed, and was the subject of interviews with the Tampa Bay Times and at least two Secret Service Agents months before he ever took flight.

So Hughes can’t claim that he lost control of his gyrocopter, took a left instead of a right and wound up at the Capitol, Lamonaca said. Hughes even livestreamed his journey mid-air. What he did was premeditated and that will limit his defense strategy, Lamonaca added.

“He was trying to make a statement for himself,” Lamonaca said. “But I think the government is going to make one the other way.”

With 30 years of experience as a pilot, Lamonaca said he knows why the Secret Service may have mistaken Hughes’ gyrocopter for a toy. It doesn’t have a transponder, which means that Hughes wasn’t sending out a secondary radar signal the way planes do.

“I know what it would have looked like on that radar screen, low flightpath, slow speed,” he said. “He was so low, the signature was almost nonexistent.”

But that’s no excuse, Lamonaca said. The Secret Service should be checking out every signal, using visual spotting to make up the difference: “There are so many different ways [to fly a weapon] and that’s going to require manpower.” Hughes had letters onboard, as opposed to bombs or explosives, but the potential for danger was still there. And the Secret Service either missed it entirely or let it slide – when they let it land.

“Whether it’s drones [or] gyrocopters … they’ve got to start taking them seriously,” he added, in reference to the need for federal security officials to account for new technology. Because a future incident, he said, may up the stakes significantly.

TSA under fire for security flaws


WASHINGTON – Facing scathing criticism, Transportation Security Administration officials were a no-show at a House hearing on Wednesday.

During a three-hour hearing by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Homeland Security Inspector General John Roth took the TSA to task over systemic shortcomings in providing American aviation security throughout the agency’s almost 14-year history.

Despite government funding of more than $7 billion a year, “we remain deeply concerned about [TSA’s] ability to execute its important mission,” Roth said in a report prepared for the hearing.

The IG identified a series of deficiencies in TSA programs and operations through more than 114 audits and investigations since 2005, according to the report.

Among the findings:

  • Covert tests which smuggled simulated explosives and weapons found significant security vulnerabilities.
  • Billions of dollars spent on technology acquisitions “revealed no resulting improvement” in security.
  • Personnel repeatedly failed to follow security protocols.
  • Weaknesses in TSA equipment “have a real and negative impact on transportation security.”

“This report is an indictment of the failure of the TSA,” said chairman of the Subcommittee on Transportation Rep. John Mica, R-Fla. “Not just in one area, but in almost every one of their functions.”

The hearing also provided further critique of America’s aviation security.

Jennifer Grover, acting director of the Government Accountability Office’s Homeland Security and Justice section, noted TSA shortcomings in addressing screening errors, imaging technology, passenger risk assessment and expedited screening processes.

Although a lot of attention has been paid to passenger screening and security, “little progress has been made securing the far larger portion of the airport where passengers do not have access,” said Rafi Ron, president of transportation security consulting firm New Age Security Solutions.

Absent from the hearing was rebuttal from the TSA itself.

“We’ve had an exceptionally difficult time getting information from the TSA on some very basic matters,” said House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah.

According to Chaffetz, TSA Acting Administrator Melvin Carraway was invited to speak at the hearing, but Homeland Security “felt it was demeaning to have the acting administrator sit on the same panel as a non-governmental witness.”

“That’s absurd,” Chaffetz said. “That’s offensive.”

According to DHS spokesman S.Y. Lee, however, TSA Acting Deputy Administrator Mark Hatfield, Jr. was prepared to testify, but “Chairman Chaffetz declined to allow him to do so.”

“The Department of Homeland Security is respectful of Congress’ oversight responsibilities and is committed to transparency and accountability,” Lee said.