Security theater could make in-flight performance

US flight attendants hold one of the most thankless jobs in the air transportation system (eclipsed, perhaps, only by the role of TSA screener).

Airlines’ pursuit of ancillary revenue has led to the unbundling of in-flight services, and in turn flight attendants have been forced to add cashier to an ever-growing job description that already includes waitress, safety instructor and enforcer, salesperson, sky police, nurse, babysitter, and in-flight entertainment troubleshooter.

Armed with handheld credit-card readers, flight attendants now spend some serious time facilitating onboard transactions for increasingly profitable airlines even as they’ve watched their own pay checks take nose dives in recent years.

So yeah, I understand why flight attendants can be a cranky bunch. What I don’t understand is why they are so deeply opposed to in-flight connectivity.

According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA wants the government to ban in-flight Wi-Fi, after terrorists tried to turn printer cartridges into bombs in an ultimately failed attempt to destroy two US-bound freighter aircraft. Add the AFA-CWA’s latest request to the union’s long-standing hostility to in-flight mobile connectivity and you’ve got one very large group of employees standing in opposition to all forms of passenger connectivity.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Fish.JPGGovernment agencies may seek to have in-flight Wi-Fi removed fromaircraft due to fears it can detonate an explosive, but “the fact isthat an explosive rigged to be triggered by Wi-Fi can be detonatedwithout the aid of in-flight Wi-Fi Internet connectivity,” notes travelexpert Steven Frischling, who tangles with the TSA on a regular basis(he’s the guy who told the world about the TSA’s directive in the wake of last year’s panty bomb attempt).

Says Frischling:

“Should a bomb maker design a device that can be triggeredby Wi-Fi, they could attach that trigger to some sort of Wi-Fi enableddevice with a long battery life, disable the “sleep” function andincrease the signal receiving strength of the device without alteringthe look, profile or design of a device, such as a cheep $200 ‘netbook’.

“All someone on board a flight would need to do to set off the triggers is findthat netbook’s pre-created wireless network from another laptop on board. Cheapsignal boosters can easily cover the area of most aircraft, especiallyif the person detonating the device has the ability to place theirtrigger netbook in a pocket and walk to different lavatory areas tosearch for the signal from the privacy of the lavatory.

“Other devices, that are far easier to pack and disguise for bothchecked bags an carry on bags, are likely to be explored before Wi-Fidue to simplicity, size and cost. A device such as Tamrac Microsync,intended for photographers, can easily go unnoticed due to its ultracompact size and be effective within a range of 100 feet (a Boeing777-300 is only approximately 242 feet in length).

“The likelihood of an actual in-flight Wi-Fi Internet connection beingused to detonate a device is unlikely for various reasons, however inflight Wi-Fi connectivity could become the focus of security agenciesas a diversionary tactic. A diversionary tactic that would costairlines and in-flight entertainment and connectivity (IFEC) providersmillions or dollars in revenue, as well as needlessly cost people theirjobs.”

Will flight attendants convince the US government to ban in-flightWi-Fi in the name of security? That’s anyone’s guess. But let’s notforget how the union successfully mobilized its troops in 2005 when theFederal Communications Commission (FCC) dared to propose relaxing thecurrent ban on in-flight cellular telephone use.

Flight attendantsbombarded the agency with concerns about the impact of mobileconnectivity on everything from air rage and emergency communicationsto potential interference with aircraft navigation equipment and – whocan forget – terrorist coordination using phones.

Years later, when in-flight Wi-Fi became available on board US aircraftthanks to Aircell and Row 44, flight attendants raised new concernsabout having to act as “porn police” because airlines initially did notintend to filter obscene Internet content. Some airlines bended, butthe porn-in-the-skies threat proved to be a non-issue.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for AFA on FAA reauth.JPGYet, the AFA-CWA uses the in-flight etiquette argument time and again. It’s latest campaign involves trying to convince lawmakers to pass FAA reauthorization legislation because it will, among other things, “ban cell phone use in-flight and many other improvements for flight attendants”.

Sorry guys and gals, if my flight is going down due to the detonation of a Tamrac Microsync-turned-bomb, I’d like to make a few calls to loved ones. Wouldn’t you?!?

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3 Responses to Security theater could make in-flight performance

  1. Bob November 17, 2010 at 6:48 pm #

    I guess the Feds forgot to fill Steven in on the safegaurds built in to both the Aircell and Row 44 systems to prevent this sort of attack. The protections have been there from the start. Next time someone should be sure to tell him so he doesn’t look like such an idiot.

  2. Steven Frischling November 17, 2010 at 7:13 pm #


    The safeguards have nothing to do with the ability to utilize a laptop or netbook’s wireless computer-to-computer capabilities to detonate a device. This type of trigger can be used on a flight with in-flight wifi or one without in-flight wifi.

    The actual connectivity of GoGo and Row 44 are irrelevant.

    Open your laptop in public, search for wifi (at least with a Mac) and you’ll see wireless networks, not just wireless connections. It is these networks, not wifi internet options, that would allow for wifi technology to be used in a less that intended manner.

    Having spoken with DHS anti-terrorism experts on this they think that the use of a laptop or other wireless devices wifi is unlikely, as many other less expensive and less complex trigger options exist.

    Happy Flying!


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