Cyber security is a real risk for the aviation sector generally. Cyber risks related to flight safety make the headlines. For instance, the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) announcement in 2017 that it hacked a Boeing 757 parked in Atlantic City, New Jersey using radio frequency communications was front page news. 2018 reports that researcher Ruben Santamarta successfully hacked into in-flight Wi-Fi networks with sitcom equipment also grabbed the headlines. More recently, a July 30, 2019 DHS alert warned that a device attached to the CAN bus network could manipulate and provide false information regarding telemetry readings, compass and attitude data, altitude, airspeed, and angle of attack.

Cyber criminals have also targeted airlines, stealing personal data and causing significant business interruptions. In 2018, in the largest reported airline data breach to date, a hacker accessed information pertaining to 9.4 million customers of Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. In a separate incident, hackers gained access to individual Lufthansa passenger accounts and used frequent-flier miles to obtain vouchers and redeem rewards. Commentators also speculate that recent airline computer outages, which caused flights to be grounded across the United States, were caused by cyber-attacks.

But less public attention has focused on how airports are susceptible to cyber-attacks. There is an average of 1,000 airport cyber-attacks per month, a study by the European Aviation Security Agency found. Earlier this year, in April 2019, Cleveland Hopkins International Airport suffered a ransomware attack that knocked out displays and disabled e-mail. Airports present a large number of different cyber security issues given the numerous systems and entities involved with airport operations.

Earlier this month, Pen Test Partners (“Pen Test”) published the results of an investigation identifying systems used at airports that are potentially at risk for a cyber-attack. According to Pen Test, airports face a significant challenge to keep their systems secure, while still allowing inter-operability for the large volume of entities that need access to the airport’s systems, including, inter alia, passengers, crews, airline staff, security personnel, government agencies like Customs, fixed based operators, freight operators, meal service providers, and more.

In short, Pen Test identified 17 airport interfaces potentially exposed to a cyber-attack, which we have grouped into the following categories: (1) the airport’s Wi-Fi system; (2) crew and flight information; (3) airport building management; (4) passenger-assist systems; and (5) runway/taxiway/ramp. Each area is discussed below.

Airport Wi-Fi

An airport’s Wi-Fi is linked to a number of issues identified by Pen Test in its review of cyber exposures. For instance, Pen Test noted that flight crews use an airport’s Wi-Fi for legitimate aviation devices such as Electronic Flight Bags. Further, although briefing data is generally sent to an Electronic Flight Bag, old-fashioned briefing rooms “still play[] a key part” in operations. For example, pilot briefing on information like load sheets, weather, routing, and clearance is often done on a PC in the briefing room by pilots from different airlines. Thus, “security controls can be a challenge to implement.”

Other necessary airport operations also rely on the airport’s Wi-Fi system. Gatelink, a data transfer system used to get information to and from the aircraft, is activated after the aircraft lands and uses an airport’s Wi-Fi. Moreover, fuel delivery requests may also use the airport’s network. For example, pilots can electronically request a fuel load, “which is sent through an API to a tablet carried by the refueller, having been reviewed back at the airline’s flight operations for weight and balance.”

The risk to all these devices and many others connected to the Wi-Fi, as explained by Pen Test, is that “[s]poofing a network to try to attract some interesting kit or credentials is sometimes successful given the large number of devices connecting to them.”

Crew Access Controls

Pen Test noted that the security of airline crew access control may be outdated. Airline crew access control must be inter-operable as it is not practicable, for example, to have access to one airport’s crew area but not another. Thus, there is a “‘legacy drag’ as upgrading one system requires that all are upgraded at the same time,” “so security controls often see a race to the bottom to ensure interoperability, mag stripe + PIN is still very common.” Cloning -- copying stolen card information to a new identification card -- is therefore a real concern.

Airport Building Management and Physical Plant

Pen Test identified the building management system, HVAC, concession spaces, ground power systems, airport security systems, and CCTV as interfaces potentially susceptible to attack.

Pen Test stated that an airport’s building management system (BMS) is a susceptible area because it can control electronic doors and other systems, and may “have bypassable authentication and remote exploits.” Similarly, an airport’s HVAC system may be “controlled with a locally-managed BMS, though remote management by a specialist firm is very common.”

It is also possible that concession spaces may not be segregated and may have access to other airport systems, the report said. In addition, the control and billing systems for ground power are networked and are therefore exposed. More worryingly, Pen Test found that certain airside security functions, such as passport gates, were visible from the airport’s corporate network. In fact, “[s]ecurity scanning/x-ray machines are also networked in many cases.” Finally, while there have been documented security issues with CCTV, Pen Test notes that “CCTV in some airports is amongst the finest in the world.”

Passenger-assist systems

Pen Test identified agent computers and check-in kiosks, baggage systems, and flight display systems as interfaces potentially susceptible to attack.

The computers used by airline agents to check-in passengers are rented from the airport and are often used by different airlines. Thus, they may raise user authentication issues. Further, interfaces to a baggage system, “although rarely directly exposed on an airport network,” are “sometimes exposed.” Pen Test stated that “[r]eflashing or bricking a few critical controllers or tampering with a small amount of serial data can be enough to snarl up a baggage system and bring the airport to a halt.”

In addition, the flight display systems that provide flight status and assigned gates may have security issues. In fact, Pen Test stated that, with client permission, it successfully tampered with a client’s flight display and noted that, fairly recently at Bristol Airport in the U.K., “a security incident, possibly ransomware, took out multiple systems including the flight displays.”


Pen Test identified airside vehicles, Instrument Landing Systems, automated docking systems, and robot tugs as interfaces potentially susceptible to attack.

Airside vehicles may use ADS-B, “an unencrypted and unauthenticated protocol”, that allows the vehicles to show up on ground radar.” Pen Test explained that “[i]t wouldn’t take much to broadcast a rogue ADS-B signal with an SDR and place a phantom vehicle on a runway,” which could cause “chaos” in low visibility conditions. Similarly, “it is not particularly difficult to spoof” an Instrument Landing System and “present a rogue signal that misdirects an aircraft.” Pen Test explained that the spoofing would be “obvious” in good weather conditions but might not be in poor visibility conditions. However, “Galileo [satellite navigation] can help as it is supposed to be more resilient to spoofing.”

Pen Test also noted that automated docking systems which “use infrared lasers to work out the distance of the aircraft to the stop point” are becoming more common. Moreover, some airports have started using robotic tugs that use both Wi-Fi and custom RF over 868MHZ, which create the potential for a tug to be remotely hijacked.

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In sum, an airport is an extremely condensed, busy enterprise that poses numerous cyber risks. Pen Test suggested segregation of systems to alleviate some of the risks. But even when best practices are in place, it is evident that airport interfaces present many cyber exposures that must be taken into account by aviation industry members and their insurers.