Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Airline Wi-Fi sparks security concerns

Summary blurb

Travelers Doubt Bomb Theory

By Christine Negroni

Even as airline passengers struggle with whether they should have the full-body security scan or go for the "enhanced" pat-down, another potential safety issue has arisen: Does the coming of Wi-Fi service to passengers pose any sort of danger aboard the plane?

The question arose after Yemeni terrorists tried recently -- and failed -- to destroy two U.S.-bound cargo planes by stuffing printer cartridges full of explosives and then detonating the charges in flight.

British explosives consultant Roland Alford created a stir when he told New Scientist magazine that Wi-Fi is a "Pandora's box" for terrorists and that giving passengers Internet access "gives a bomber lots of options for contacting a device on an aircraft.”

A number of airline workers, security professionals and technologists say they agree that Wi-Fi can create serious security risks. The Association of Flight Attendants, for example, has asked the government to ban Wi-Fi.

“We recognize the potential of the threat and are looking at it closely,” said Gideon Ewers, the spokesman for the International Federation of Air Line Pilots' Associations. His reaction was mirrored by the Washington. D.C.-based Air Line Pilots Association.

“We need to fully explore what could the bad guys do, how could this be turned against us,” said Robb Powers, a Boeing 737 pilot and chairman of the national security committee for ALPA.

Security Experts Worry About Wi-Fi

Security expert and blogger Bruce Schneier dismissed such concerns in a blog posting last week: "Put together a sloppy and unsuccessful package bomb with an imagined triggering mechanism, and you have a new and dangerous threat that -- even though it was a threat ever since the first airplane got Wi-Fi capability -- must be immediately dealt with right now," he wrote. "Please, let's not ever tell the TSA about timers. Or altimeters."

The Yemeni bomb plot demonstrates one way Wi-Fi could facilitate terrorists, said Dinkar Mokadam, an occupational safety expert with the Association of Flight Attendants. He said wifi Wi-Fi and Internet-enabled calls could enable a terrorist to maneuver around the U.S. ban on the use of cell phones on airplanes and actually trigger a bomb.

“This sort of a detonation doesn’t require a voice," Mokadam said. "It requires communication to a cell phone and you can text to a device and have it go off. You don’t have to even talk to it.”

DHS Considering Banning Wi-Fi

Banning Wi-Fi use completely or during high security-alert periods are two of several proposals the Department of Homeland Security is considering. TSA spokesman Greg Soule said DHS was “using the latest intelligence and state of the art technology to address ever-evolving threats.”

While the Yemeni bombs contained cell phone components, they do did not appear to have been designed to detonate with a phone call but by cell phone alarm; that is, communication with the plane would not have been necessary to set off the bombs. But since the call-activated bomb is an established technique, terrorists could conceivably hide devices in checked luggage and then trigger them through an Internet-enabled call, according to Roland Alford’s father and business partner, explosives engineer Sidney Alford.

The debate comes at a time when airlines are ramping up their marketing of Wi-Fi service to passengers. AirTran and Delta Air Lines, for example, have partnered with Google to offer free Wi-Fi aboard hundreds of their planes during the holidays.

Southwest Block VoIP

At Southwest Airlines, where Internet service is being installed on airplanes, spokesman Chris Mainz said their broadband doesn’t work that way.

“Our Wi-Fi product will not enable cell phone-to-cell phone interaction and it blocks Voice over Internet Protocol,” Mainz said.

Whether Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), the system that delivers voice communication over the Internet, can be completely restricted is not entirely certain. Aircell, the airline Internet company in Illinois that provides broadband to airlines including Delta, AirTran and American Airlines under the name Gogo, declined to be interviewed for this story. But earlier this year, Aircell released a statement saying it is “extremely difficult to stop every instance of VoIP.”

Delta Air Lines declined to comment on its security practices.

In opposing the use of cellphones on airplanes in the U.S., DHS, the FBI and the Department of Justice said in 2005 that they were concerned that terrorists or hijackers could use the phones to “facilitate a coordinated attack,” either with someone on the ground, on another airplane or even among people sitting in different sections of the same airplane.

Travelers Doubt Bomb Theory

Some travelers say they fail to see the risk that Wi-Fi on airplanes could be used to trigger a bomb.

“I don’t think the Wi-Fi to trigger a bomb is something to worry about,” said Jon Safran, who lives in Atlanta and travels at least once a week. “I’m just not quite sure it’s technically feasible to do all that, get it through security and trigger it. And I guess you’d have to be on the plane yourself dialing it in.

“I think one or two incidents shouldn’t be a reason to fundamentally change our lives,” Safran said. He said he thought a ban of Wi-Fi would be an overreaction.

Scott LaGrand, who lives in Columbus, Ohio, and recently passed through was at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, said he travels often for work and has been on flights with in-flight wi-fi Wi-Fi but also hasn’t used it. before.

“If there’s proof that those sorts of things could happen, then I would support not having Wi-Fi available,” said LaGrand, who is also a former Atlanta Knights hockey player. “Because it’s not something that most travelers have become accustomed to, I don’t think we would be missing it.”

Airport aims to build global gateway

Hartsfield-Jackson's International Airport's new international terminal is now set to open in two years. The airport is completing the terminal under the pressure of tight budgets and issues involving the design, including negotiations with main tenant Delta Air Lines and bond financing.

Art Makes Airport Attractive To Travelers

By Kelly Yamanouchi

Hartsfield-Jackson's International Airport's new international terminal, now set to open in two years, will be one of the first impressions of Atlanta or even the United States for many travelers.

Making it a good one is a challenge, especially when the airport is completing the terminal under the pressure of tight budgets and issues involving the design, negotiations with main tenant Delta Air Lines and bond financing.

The international terminal, named for the late former Mayor Maynard H. Jackson Jr., is touted by the airport as the "new global gateway for the city of Atlanta." It will consist of a terminal and a 12-gate concourse, totaling 1.2 million square feet and all connected to the existing airport on the end of Concourse E, where most international flights now operate. That will provide much more direct access for international passengers, who now must ride the train from the main terminal.

A rendering shows a spacious, open terminal with large skylights, trees and high ceilings.

"It's a very bright and airy space," said Hartsfield-Jackson assistant general manager Dan Molloy, who oversees the international terminal project. "It should be very pleasing and functional."

Design and cost a controversy

Construction of the basic terminal structure is nearly complete and the work on the interior is beginning, following years of fighting over the design and cost of the project.

An airport plays a role in "communicating the community's image to the rest of the world," said Jeff Loeschen of the Architectural Alliance at a recent national symposium in Atlanta on airport planning, design and construction. "It's a first and last impression."

But, said airport manager Ben DeCosta,"We're all under the same pressure to meet the demands of airlines for efficient projects and the demands of communities and the demands of businesses."

The original design in 2001 was for a $1.2 billion project, which was deemed too expensive by the airport and Delta. The second design was originally estimated to cost $983 million, including a giant glass wall with a view of the Atlanta skyline, but that increased over the following years). The airport eventually fired the design team, which then sued in a case that continues today.

In the second round of designs, Molloy said the airport was not looking to make a big "architectural statement" with the building. "The first design did have a bigger, larger facade overall," he said. "We did downsize that, we simplified the glass curtain wall system." He said there will still be a view of the city skyline.

Delta demanded changes

Airlines -- which indirectly help pay for terminals through rents and fees -- have a big stake in holding down costs. Delta more than a year ago demanded $400 million in cuts to the international terminal project, which now is budgeted at $1.35 billion today due to delays and reworking.

"The changes we made are changes that will largely be invisible to the passenger, but would result in us being able to get the facility for a little less money," Molloy said. The design modifications included changes to the design of the parking deck, for example.

Delta has agreed to help the city seek bond financing for the project, an effort that the airport has been working on for more than a year. The city expects to finally go to market to sell bonds in the coming months.

Making Airport Attractive

It's not the first time Hartsfield-Jackson has faced balancing utilitarian and cost-effective with attractive and inviting.

The current version of Atlanta's airport was designed in the 1970s and opened in the 1980s, said Robert Kennedy, assistant general manager of operations at Hartsfield-Jackson. Until the atrium was added to the main terminal in the early 1990s, the design was very utilitarian, he said. Domestic concourses also got makeovers to add a bit of style during the '90s.

"They listened to the customers," Kennedy said of the atrium project.

This time, Molloy said management is trying to serve both form and function from the ground up.

"We have a facility that is a very welcoming facility, one that will be a very good front door to Atlanta (for) the rest of the world," he said. "At the same time, we're being very cost-efficient, very cost-effective."

Art Makes Airport Attractive To Travelers

Budget issues matter little to the end user, often a harried traveler who sees getting through an airport as a necessary hassle.

As Pat Askew, of Perkins + Will, said at the recent symposium, passengers want to get in and out of airports as quickly as possible, but "you can get stranded at the airport, and then it becomes important" to make it a place that people can enjoy.

Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport makes itself attractive to travelers with art exhibits around the terminal and concourses, such as the collection of stone sculptures from Zimbabwe in the lower-level walkway between the T concourse and Concourse A.

"We're looking at creating a sense of place, using some art to do that," Hartsfield-Jackson assistant general manager Dan Molloy said. It can "maybe help the passenger relax -- give them a distraction they can focus on, if you will, while they wait."

The Atlanta airport plans $5 million worth of art for the international terminal, including a large-scale project of "functional art" -- a 1,000-foot wall of glass panels laminated with patterns of tree bark along the tunnel between Concourse E and the international terminal. Its function will be to divide passengers who have been cleared by U.S. authorities from those who haven't.

One of the key benefits of the international terminal will be allowing arriving passengers to avoid rechecking bags before leaving the airport, as they now must do in order to get baggage to the main terminal.

Functional art allows the airport to get multiple benefits out of the requirement in the public art master plan that to set aside 1 percent of certain monies including airport construction funds for art.

"It is a factor that we do consider," Molloy said. "If we didn't put this piece of artwork in, we would have to do something else for a wall."