U.S. regulators aren't taking any chances with the discovery that Wi-Fi signals can cause flickering or temporary blank screens in the cockpits of Boeing passenger jets. On Tuesday, the FAA ordered airlines to replace the cockpit displays used by pilots in more than 1,300 Boeing aircraft over the next five years.
The order comes as airline pilots have been using an increasing number of tablets and other Wi-Fi enabled devices in their cockpits during flights. According to the Wall Street Journal, Honeywell, the maker of the "phase 3" cockpit displays, pointed out that the display interference was only previously detected during a developmental ground test with stronger-than-normal Wi-Fi signals and that no in-flight incidents have been reported. But the FAA ruling pointed to the low-risk, high-consequence scenario of a screen potentially going dark during takeoff or landing and leading to "loss of control of the airplane"—one FAA ground test led to a screen outage lasting six minutes.
It might not just be a Wi-Fi problem. According to the FAA ruling:
This susceptibility has been verified to exist in a range of RF spectrum (mobile satellite communications, cell phones, air surveillance and weather radar, and other systems), and is not limited to WiFi transmissions.
Boeing had previously recommended that airlines change out the cockpit displays in 2012, and Honeywell had voluntarily replaced some of the screens. But the FAA had also taken the intermediate step of placing placards in Boeing aircraft cockpits to prohibit use of Wi-Fi, except for an operating rule exemption issued to Delta Airlines for testing purposes.
Honeywell had tried to stave off a complete replacement order by suggesting that the FAA only require screen replacements in aircraft that would have Wi-Fi devices being used in the cockpit area. It pointed to how Delta Airline pilots have used Wi-Fi enabled iPads without problems so far. Similarly, Southwest Airlines mentioned how 435 of its Boeing jets have flown for more than 2.3 million hours without problems from Wi-Fi systems installed in the cabin, concluding that "this experience indicates a negligible level of risk."
Several airlines such as Virgin Australia, Air France, Ryanair have opposed the FAA's uncompromising stance on replacing all the cockpit displays, according to BBC News. Ryanair specifically cited the "financial burden" in undertaking the replacement program that would cost an estimated $13.8 million for all Boeing aircraft.
Aviation industry experts interviewed by BBC News suggested that passengers don't have much to worry about based on the lack of in-flight cases of interference. The fact that the FAA is allowing the replacement program to take place over five years until 2019 also suggests federal regulators don't see it as an emergency situation. Then again, most airline passengers will probably be too occupied with their own electronic devices during flights to think about it.
Jeremy Hsu has been working as a science and technology journalist in New York City since 2008. He has written on subjects as diverse as supercomputing and wearable electronics for IEEE Spectrum. When he’s not trying to wrap his head around the latest quantum computing news for Spectrum, he also contributes to a variety of publications such as Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and others. He is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program.