Why children with smartphones are grounding flights

·9-min read
AirDrop on planes - Digital Vision
AirDrop on planes - Digital Vision

It was shaping up to be a textbook take off. The conditions were clear and the AndoluJet plane had taxied onto the runway at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. It was scheduled to fly to Istanbul, a breezy two-hour journey.

The pilot conducted the final checks, and then a number of passengers felt a light vibration in their pockets. An AirDrop request. The file came through as a preview, meaning the recipients did not have to click ‘accept’ to catch a glimpse of the content: explicit photographs of plane disasters.

One passenger had a panic attack, another fainted, and an atmosphere of unrest broke out on the plane. After the crew was informed of the situation they relayed the message to the pilot, who made the decision to return to the gate.

Police came on board the flight and arrested nine passengers, all in their late teens, who were quickly identified as the culprits. They had sent the photographs to their fellow passengers using the iPhone AirDrop function, which allows you to send files to phones in close proximity. Thankfully for the police, it also lets you track where they have come from.

Authorities conducted extensive security checks on all passengers and their luggage, and hours later the plane finally took to the skies – nine passengers lighter than planned. The culprits could be prosecuted for disseminating false information, something which carries a possible three-year prison term in Israel.

It is an unsettling scenario, and a trend that appears to be on the rise. Last summer, a United Airlines plane was evacuated at San Francisco International Airport after a number of passengers received a photograph of a gun on their iPhones via AirDrop. As it turned out, the culprit was a teenager, and the image was in fact an Airsoft toy gun which shoots nonlethal plastic pellets.

In another incident in March this year, a passenger on board an Alaska Airlines flight which had just landed at Orlando International Airport received a threatening message via AirDrop, threatening to hijack the plane. The aircraft was taxiing to the gate when it suddenly stopped. Passengers were told there had been a threat to the aircraft and that it wouldn’t be approaching the terminal any time soon. Within minutes, police officers with submachine guns surrounded the plane.

“We were looking (up and down the plane) for the perps, but we’re not seeing any. Our concern was that it was a bomb threat because they kept us far from any terminals,” one passenger said. The culprit, as it turned out, was a ten-year-old passenger who had made an ill-advised joke. His mother was in tears as they were escorted off the plane.

Children are, it seems, more likely than adults to ground planes using the AirDrop function. In 2018, a 15-year-old girl accidentally sent out a photograph of a mock crime scene featuring a bean bag mannequin, face down on the floor. A number of passengers received the photo and perceived it to be threatening, so they alerted the flight crew who notified the pilot, who returned the aircraft to the gate. The teenager and her family were removed from the flight and re-booked onto a later service, red-faced but facing no further criminal investigation.

The problem might be more widespread than we think. This month alone there are dozens of examples of people Tweeting about sending or receiving photos via AirDrop on planes. Some seem quite proud of the action. One Twitter user named Michael Hewitt boasted of sharing an image of Sylvester Stalone to fellow passengers. Another user, Nicole Behnam, Tweeted that she had distributed a joke photograph to 15 fellow passengers, while one Eric Norris said on Twitter: “There are about 50 people on my flight who have AirDrop open. OMG let the games begin…”

Some flights have been affected by the distribution of different kinds of offensive images via AirDrop. One Twitter user, Brittney Raines, said that her flight was delayed because somebody was trying to send nudes to fellow passengers on board. This could have deeper intentions. An air steward for United Airlines told the Live and Let’s Fly blog: “I was commuting on Southwest, and a young lady was AirDropping photos to the entire plane. But she was proud of it and stood up telling the plane that they should join her Only Fans account.”

These disruptions are made possible because Apple devices can send photographs, videos and other media files for free using AirDrop, powered by a combination of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth (the Bluetooth detects the nearby phones, and then the files are sent via Wi-Fi). Anyone with an iPhone can send files to other Apple devices up to 30 feet away, so long as their AirDrop function is set to receive files from “Everyone”.

One might wonder, why leave your AirDrop to receive files from “Everyone”? Judging by those Tweets, some people clearly enjoy the horseplay. There’s practical use to it, too. At conferences, lectures or meetings, speakers might wish to send files to people in attendance without compiling a long list of email addresses. A sweeping AirDrop gets the job done with a few clicks, but some recipients might forget to revert to receiving files from contacts only. Doing so leaves people open to pranksters who have adopted the technology to distribute photos and videos, and it is often offensive or controversial material. So why is this happening?

Dr Daria J Kuss, Associate Professor in Psychology at Nottingham Trent University, said: “As these images are sent online, people may not take as seriously the potential impact of the images sent.

“This is where the ‘online disinhibition effect’ comes into play – online, people are significantly more likely to engage in behaviours which are considered antisocial and inappropriate in face to face settings. Senders can stay anonymous and invisible to the most extent, offering them a blanket of security.”

As of yet, not a great deal is being done to stop this. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) told The Telegraph: “Currently there are no specific recommendations on the issue however, we continue to monitor incidents and if further action is needed we will work on recommendations with our members.”

A flight attendant speaking anonymously to The Telegraph confirmed there was no protocol in place for this eventuality. So far there have only been half a dozen high-profile cases of AirDrop disruption on flights, but if it becomes more common it will only be a matter of time until airlines are forced to act.

When approached by the Telegraph on the matter, Apple gave no official comment, but advised that the default setting for AirDrop is “Contacts only”, and that iPhone users can change this as they wish. Apple users can avoid receiving files entirely by clicking “Receiving Off” – only the setting “Everyone” leaves you vulnerable to receiving files from strangers.

The chances are, however, that on a flight of 150-plus passengers there will always be a handful with their phones set to receive AirDrop files from “Everyone”. And so long as that is the case, the window for a prankster to cause havoc on board is wide open.

Technology flight myths - iStockphoto
Technology flight myths - iStockphoto

Technology on planes: the risks and the myths

‘5G can interfere with airline safety systems’

Verdict? No known examples, despite FAA warnings

In January this year, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) warned that 5G signals could interfere with plane altimeters, which pilots use to gauge altitude during bad weather landings. The altimeter also enables braking systems on planes to transition to landing mode.

There have been no aviation incidents in the US as a result of 5G signals, but buffer limits to limit 5G usage have been agreed around many airports, and the FAA has issued more than 1,450 official notices warning pilots not to fly close to new 5G towers.

A spokesperson for the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) said in November: “There have been no reported incidents of aircraft systems being affected by 5G transmissions in UK airspace, but we are nonetheless working with Ofcom and the Ministry of Defence to make sure that the deployment of 5G in the UK does not cause any technical problems for aircraft."

You can read more on the subject of 5G frequencies and aviation, here.

‘Lithium batteries could start a fire in the hold’

Verdict? True, but rare

In recent years you may have been advised at check-in to remove lithium batteries from your baggage. The reason for this is that lithium batteries (found in portable battery chargers, for example) have, on very rare occasions, been known to malfunction and catch fire. The CAA says: “Lithium batteries are very safe, but because of their high energy, if they are not treated with care or if they are abused or have a manufacturing fault, they can catch fire. Batteries have been the cause of a number of fires on board aircraft and during ground handling.”

‘Laptops can interfere with pilots during take off’

Verdict? False, but hazardous in other ways

During take off, passengers are told to turn off their laptops and to stow them away. The reason for this is not to do with electronic interference with the pilot, but rather because the cabin should be free of any potential hazardous items in an evacuation incident. A laptop could, for example, be a projectile during a sudden deceleration or impact, or a trip hazard in an evacuation scenario.

In addition, laptops pose a risk because of the high amount of power stored in their batteries. If damaged, a laptop battery could short-circuit and cause a fire.

‘Phones left off flight mode can down a plane’

Verdict? False, but interference can be a distraction for pilots

Patrick Smith, a US pilot and author of Cockpit Confidential, says: "Can cellular communications really disrupt cockpit equipment? The answer is potentially yes, but in all likelihood no, and airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) are merely erring on the better-safe-than-sorry side."

He continues: "Aircraft electronics are designed and shielded with interference in mind. This should mitigate any ill effects, and to date there are no proven cases of a phone adversely affecting the outcome of a flight. But you never know."

A blog by a pilot on airlineupdates.net claims that the interference caused by mobile phone signals registers on the headsets of the flightdeck, in the same manner that one might have encountered on speakers affected by a nearby mobile: "dit d-dit d-dit d-dit…"

The author continued: "It’s not safety critical, but is annoying. Of course, there is plenty of attenuation between phones in the cabin and the pilots’ radio. However, if say 50 people on board are inconsiderate enough who can’t be bothered to switch their cell radio off, there will be 50 phones constantly looking for cell towers at maximum power. That is a lot of radio pollution."

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