Hackers Attack Air Traffic Control

ByABC News
August 28, 2000, 11:11 AM

Aug. 29 -- A different kind of hijacking is taking place in the skies.

Britains Civil Aviation Authority has issued a safety alert about a new threat to air passengers: hackers taking over air traffic control transmissions and giving pilots bogus orders.

The number of incidents in which radio hackers have broken into frequencies used by British air traffic controllers and given false instructions to pilots, or broadcasted fake distress calls, are on an alarming rise. There were three such incidents there in 1998, 18 last year, and now, so far this year, 20.

Fortunately in all those cases, pilots ascertained that the directions given them were fake. But had they not done so, their lives and those of their passengers could have been placed in serious jeopardy.

The problem is not unique to the U.K.

In the United States, there have been fewer reported incidents involving falsified radio transmissions, but the threat is still real.

In April of last year, the pilot of a USAir flight approaching Washingtons Reagan National Airport was instructed to divert his landing by an unknown voice breaking into his frequency, causing confusion for himself and for two other planes in position to land.

Unauthorized Use Not Infrequent

From time to time we have had unauthorized people use frequencies used by air traffic controllers to issue incorrect instructions, said FAA spokesman Jim Peters, citing as example ghost transmissions at Kennedy Airport in New York City.

Unfortunately, according to the FAA, there is no technology available to block or filter broadcasts by unauthorized persons on these frequencies.

Britains aviation authority does not consider the problem a major safety issue because pilots are required to read back instructions to controllers, who can recognize if conflicting information has been given. Radio hackers also often use incorrect terminology, which tips off pilots, the authority added.