Technology advances really really fast!

I once had an unpleasant exchange with a flight attendant on South African Airways a few years ago after he noticed I had earphones on when the aircraft was preparing to land. While we had, as always, been advised to switch of all such devices, I thought Airplane mode was intended just for such purposes; that I could still listen to Reba McEntire (yes, really!) as the pilot guided the aircraft down to the runway.

So I had nicely turned on Airplane mode and tightened my seatbelt.

“Didn’t you hear that you’re supposed to switch off all devices?” He rudely asked.

“Well, but it’s in Airplane Mode,” I answered while trying to offer explanations he wasn’t planning on having.

“Switch it off, now!” He ordered.

Of course, as a young man who had only recently started flying, I did as he asked.

Not that I agreed.

By definition, Airplane mode “suspends many of the device’s signal transmitting functions, thereby disabling the device’s capacity to place or receive calls or use text messaging – while still permitting use of other functions that do not require signal transmission (e.g., games, built-in camera, MP3 player).” It basically turns off the “phone” capabilities.

Fast-forward 4 years later, airlines not only let passengers utilize their devices’ Airplane mode, they also offer free Wi-Fi (yes, wireless Internet) at certain times during the flight!

Among carriers that serve this region, Emirates Airlines was the first to announce the free Wifi offer for a selected range of aircrafts, as reported in this March 2015 story.

It got me thinking of the various silly status updates some people could make on Facebook, especially when bored on a five or so hour flight. And the potential panic some of them could cause among relatives back home.

Now a report released this week by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) said new aircraft may be susceptible to having their inflight computer systems hacked through onboard wi-fi networks or remotely by individuals elsewhere.

“According to cybersecurity experts we interviewed, Internet connectivity in the cabin should be considered a direct link between the aircraft and the outside world, which includes potential malicious actors,” read the 56-page report.

“Four cybersecurity experts with whom we spoke discussed firewall vulnerabilities, and all four said that because firewalls are software components, they could be hacked like any other software and circumvented,” the report said.

Not surprisingly, the report also notes that the situation is made worse by prevalence of smartphones and tablets, especially in the cockpit.

“The presence of personal smartphones and tablets in the cockpit increases the risk of a system’s being compromised by trusted insiders, both malicious and non-malicious, if these devices have the capability to transmit information to aircraft avionics systems,” stated the dossier.

CNN reported that following the publication of the report, lawmakers demanded that the federal agencies act fast to counter any potential threats to the aviation industry.

“[The FAA] must focus on aircraft certification standards that would prevent a terrorist with a laptop in the cabin or on the ground from taking control of an airplane through the passenger wi-fi system,” Representative Peter DeFazio told CNN.