Last updated: 04:24 PM ET, Mon August 08 2016

How Vulnerable Are Airline Computer Networks?

Airlines & Airports | Paul Thompson | August 08, 2016

How Vulnerable Are Airline Computer Networks?

Photo courtesy of Thinkstock

It’s hard to believe that airlines once ran solely on cash transactions and tickets bought in person or by phone. But as the planes we fly have evolved over the decades, so have the methods under which airlines operate. Nowadays, airlines are only as strong as their hardware infrastructure — and in light of recent massive outages, technology is coming into focus.

In the early hours of Monday morning, a strong storm passed over Delta’s corporate headquarters, located on the edge of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. The storm produced a lightning bolt which struck close enough to knock out a piece of equipment at Delta called a switch gear, which is basically a fuse box. Georgia Power, who is Atlanta’s utility company, said there were no power outages in their network last night, but the equipment malfunction caused the crash of Delta’s network worldwide.

READ MORE: Computer Outage Forces Delta to Ground Flights Worldwide Monday Morning

Southwest’s nationwide outage a couple of weeks ago proves that no airline is impervious to issues like these. Southwest said their outage was caused by a router, and even their backup systems failed. The airline has hired consultants to determine the root cause and develop a solution to keep it from happening again. It also caused some infighting between Southwest’s labor unions and company leadership.

Airlines not only have to worry about hardware failures, but also hackers who seek to disable airline operations from behind the scenes. If a hacker were able to access backend systems such as scheduling or reservations, the results could bring an airline to its knees for days.

READ MORE: Computer Glitch Grounds All United Airlines Flights in The US(July 8, 2015)

Polish airline LOT suffered a cyber attack in June 2015, disrupting its flight-planning computers at its hub in Warsaw. Dr. Simon Moores, Security Futurist and Risk Consultant told SITA, “We are starting to see such complexity of attacks – so large, so regular, and so highly scaled - that it is beyond the capabilities of human operators to handle the risk. In 2016, it is not about if you are going to be hacked, but when.”

SITA’s 2016 Airline IT Trends Survey shows that 92 percent of travelers prefer to book their flights by avoiding any human interaction, and 57 percent use self-service technology when checking in for their flight at the airport. SITA also found that 91 percent of airlines plan to invest in cyber security within the next three years.

United Airlines had its own worldwide network outage in July 2015, and as with Southwest, a router was to blame. But since then, the airline has acted proactively by offering a bounty to anyone who exposes security flaws within its IT architecture. The reward of miles also costs less than bringing in consultant teams. The airline recently rewarded a 19-year-old hacker from Amsterdam one million frequent flier miles for disclosing multiple flaws. The same hacker has also revealed flaws for Facebook, Google and Yahoo. 


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