What third-party app crashed American Airlines pilots' iPads and caused flight delays?

About two dozen American Airlines flights were delayed after a faulty third-party app glitched out and crashed pilots' iPads. But what app caused it and why? Could a compatibility issue with iOS 8.3 and a navigation app crash an iPad?

Flight plan app on iPad
Credit: Nick Bastian

Dozens of American Airlines flights were delayed on Tuesday after “a faulty iPad navigation app” caused the tablets to crash. Despite Boeing 737 pilots’ claims of all 737’s being grounded and a system-wide outage, American Airlines spokesperson Casey Norton said, “Initial reports on social media of a system-wide problem affecting a specific type of aircraft are inaccurate.” Instead, “several dozen” flights were affected by the outage.

American Airlines told CNNMoney that it “blamed a faulty third-party app, not Apple” for the iPad glitch. "Some flights are experiencing an issue with a software application on pilot iPads," American Airlines said. "In some cases, the flight has had to return to the gate to access a Wi-Fi connection to fix the issue."

The pilot of passenger Bill Jacaruso's plane claimed, “It looks like it's not just 737s, it's random, but no one's going anywhere ‘til we figure it out.” Planes can’t fly without navigation and passenger and CEO of CurbStand Serge Gojkovich tweeted that his flight took off after American Airlines “pilots printed the maps.”

In 2013, American Airlines was the first commercial carrier to deploy electronic flight bags and discontinue paper charts. At that time, more than 8,000 iPads were deployed to replace the 3,000-page, 35-pound paper-based manuals in the airline’s Boeing 777, 767, 757, 737 and MD-80. The change saved the airline “a minimum of 400,000 gallons and $1.2 million of fuel annually” and eliminated “24 million pages of paper documents.”

The announcement continued:

As part of the Electronic Flight Bag program, American's pilots use mobile software and data from Jeppesen, a unit of Boeing Digital Aviation. The FAA-approved Jeppesen Mobile Terminal Chart application is allowed for gate-to-gate use throughout all phases of flight and, with the exception of a few select documents, replaces paper operating manuals with up-to-date electronic information that is easier to access.

Jeppesen issued a worldwide NavData notice on April 28 as well as a one for the U.S. In truth, that may or may not have anything to do with the software application issue that American Airlines mentioned in a tweet. Could it be fixed by connecting to Wi-Fi? Those types of notices and alerts seem fairly common when viewing the history.

The BBC pointed out that “American Airlines pilots use an app called FliteDeck.” Although an AA spokesperson already fingered a “third-party app” as the culprit, the airline said it was “still investigating the cause of the problem.” So what third-party app glitched out and caused iPads to crash?

Jeppesen FliteDeck Pro is an app that is only available to “commercial or military” operators who also have subscriptions to “Jeppesen’s TEFIS or JMCS data.” Below are iPad screenshots of the app posted in the iTunes Stores.

Jeppesen FliteDeck Pro Jeppesen

The app claims to be the “first FAA-approved Airport Moving Map;” its "integrated distribution for mobile devices" is included in Electronic Flight Bags (EFB). However, there is a compatibility issue between iOS 8.3 and the Jeppesen’s FliteDeck Pro; it's listed under technical support with no “estimated fix time from Apple.” Other than not updating to iOS 8.3, or waiting for Apple to issue a patch, Jeppesen suggested a “workaround for wifi+cellular devices is to rely on the internal GPS capability of the device."

FliteDeck Pro compatibility issue with iOS 8 Jeppesen Jeppesen

Fair use of Jeppesen warning: FliteDeck Pro has compatibility issue with iOS 8.3.

After calling Jeppesen and asking if the FliteDeck Pro app and iOS 8.3 compatibility issue caused American Airlines pilot iPads to crash, Jeppesen only said, “We’re not able to comment at this time.”

So unfortunately the third-party app that is to blame for the American Airlines flight delays is still unknown.

Fortunately however there were no reports of people who tweeted about the American Airlines iPad glitch being met by feds upon landing. The FBI and TSA alert issued last week advised airlines to, “Report any evidence of suspicious behavior concerning aviation wireless signals, including social media messages with threatening references to Onboard Network Systems, ADS-B, ACARS, and Air Traffic Control networks.”

The alert, which listed other “suspicious” behaviors to be reported, was issued after Chris Roberts jokingly tweeted about hacking into a plane’s Wi-Fi system. Roberts, who was detained by FBI agents after landing, was thereafter banned from United Airlines. Later at the RSA conference, when Roberts gave his “Security Hopscotch” presentation on IoT dangers, he reminded the audience that he is a one of the good guys and his tweet was about theoretical threats to aviation security.

Yet a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report (pdf) wasn't joking when it warned that “unsecured connections between the passenger Wi-Fi networks and the avionics systems on some Boeing and Airbus planes could make it possible for a hacker to gain access to navigational controls and commandeer a plane.”

Cybersecurity and aviation

Roberts may not have touched upon aircraft hacking issues at RSA, instead talking about IoT dangers, but attacking aircraft systems is yet another potential Internet of Things threat. TAL Global experts in counterterrorism, infrastructure and information security did discuss cybersecurity challenges in aviation and the way “aircraft systems and networks could become weapons of war.”

During the RSA conference presentation about cybersecurity and aviation (pdf), they looked at how planes, aka "computers that fly," could be used for malicious intent.

Cybersecurity and aviation RSA presentation TAL Global

TAL Global’s Lawrence Dietz added that “terrorists may aim to exploit unknown security vulnerabilities in the future that impact public safety.”

The march toward exascale computers
View Comments
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies