On Thursday, May 19, EgyptAir flight 804 crashed over the Mediterranean Sea, killing all 66 people aboard.  Although terrorism is on the list of possible culprits, the cause of the crash is still under investigation. But the flight joins a list of similar tragedies that have struck since 2014. These include the mysterious disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight 370, the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 over Ukraine, a pilot purposefully crashing Germanwings flight 9525, and mechanical failure causing the crash of Air Algerie flight 5017, amongst others.
Fortunately, commercial airline crashes are very rare. On average, there are over 28,000 commercial airline flights everyday in the United States alone, and only an extremely small number ever crash. There were only 73 accidents out of 38 million flights in 2014, according to the International Air Transport – and only 12 of those were fatal. This is a testament to how both airlines and governments are committed to keeping customers safe, even as the threats to commercial aircraft seem to be increasing everyday.
Many of the physical threats to commercial flights are very well known, and a variety of steps have been taken to mitigate them. For example, anyone who has travelled through an American airport in the last 15 years is very familiar with the procedures that have been put in place to stop malicious actors from bringing explosives and or weapons onto airplanes.
However, there are some threats that are much harder to avoid, such as adversaries armed with military hardware. John Halinksi, former deputy administrator for the TSA, told the Cipher Brief that “since the mid-1970s, there have been over 30 attacks against civilian aircraft by surface-to-air missile systems.” Commercial airliners lack the countermeasures that protect military aircraft, and thus are very vulnerable to this kind of attack – as seen when a surface-to-air missile was used to attack Malaysian Airlines flight 17 over Ukraine.
There are also new and emerging threats to commercial airplanes that the industry is still working on addressing. For instance, there are a growing number of reports of people on the ground shining blinding lasers into the cockpits of airplanes as they attempt to land. Additionally, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), popularly known as drones, have become a growing problem around airports. Specifically, an increasing number have been both passively observing airports for unknown reasons and actively interfering with planes during takeoff and landing. A few have even collided with planes while in flight, although these have not resulted in any major incidents. The problem has grown to the point where some companies are developing counter-UAV technology specifically to stop this problem.
Beyond the physical, there are growing concerns about the cyber-threat to commercial airlines and what that could mean for airline safety moving forwards. Cyber-attacks against the aviation industry have taken a variety of forms, and not all of them are as catastrophic as Hollywood would have you think. For example, in 2015, the Okecie Airport in Warsaw, Poland had to cancel or delay over 20 flights after a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack overloaded its flight plan system. No one was harmed in this attack, but it did incur a significant financial and reputational loss.
On the other end of the severity spectrum, a cybersecurity researcher named Chris Roberts was investigated by the FBI after claiming to have altered the course of a plane he was flying on by hacking into its control systems. While this is certainly a frightening scenario, there are significant doubts about the veracity of Roberts’ claim. Chad Gray, of Booz Allen Hamilton, told The Cipher Brief that, simply put, “the degree to which commercial aircraft are vulnerable to a cyber attack has been highly dramatized.”  That being said, cyber vulnerabilities are still present, and the situation still warrants close monitoring.
In spite of these mounting threats, commercial aviation remains one of the safest ways to travel. Relative to cars, airplanes experience far fewer crashes, are held to higher safety standards, and may very well be less susceptible to cyber-attacks. Whenever a tragedy like the loss of EgyptAir flight 804 occurs, concerns about airline safety tend to rapidly increase, usually amidst fears of terrorism. Until the final cause is determined though, it is important to remember that the commercial aviation industry as whole and government agencies are constantly working to address threats to passenger security – and they are usually successful.  But anything short of perfection will still give people pause.
Luke Penn-Hall is the Cyber and Technology Producer at The Cipher Brief. 

Source:The Cipher Brief