Cyber terrorism and drones emerging as aviation threats

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One of the world’s largest insurers has identified six major emerging risks for the aviation industry, with cyber terrorism and drones making the list.

Released by Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty the Global Aviation and Safety Study also identified lithium batteries, wildlife strikes, increasing turbulence and pilot training as growing risk areas to aviation.

‘Determining future threats to operations is key to the aviation sector maintaining its much-improved safety record in future,’ says the report. ‘In addition to the host of potential risks posed by natural hazards, technological advances, human error, war and terrorism, the industry is also having to remain alert to a number of other new challenges.’

Disturbingly, Allianz warns that one of these new challenges is cyber warfare, which may replace the hijacker and the bomber as the ‘weapon of choice’ for terrorists. The report claims that the industry is facing risks on all fronts due to aviation’s increasing reliance on computer systems ‘for almost every aspect of its business.’

The report also said that the incorporation of wi-fi and internet services being offered as inflight products were a ‘concern’ and declared that the aviation sector needs to ‘review areas in which security funding is spent’ in facing this new threat.

The report also identified the growth of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)—more commonly known as drones—as an emerging threat to the overall safety of the industry. The report claims that the ‘the potential risks are obvious, namely collision or third party damage or injury and resulting liability’. The report highlighted a ‘potential risk in the loss of control due to frequency interferences’ and said that technical failures like these accounted for 58 per cent of all incidents, with 27.5 per cent related to pilot and human error.

Unsurprisingly, bird strikes also made the list due to heavy financial cost repairing aircraft from collisions with wildlife. The report stated that ‘most accidents occur when the bird hits the windscreen or flies into the engines,’ which cause annual damages estimated at ‘$US400m within the US alone and up to $US1.2bn to commercial aircraft worldwide.’

Encouragingly the report praised the use of dogs to scare away birds as a successful approach in reducing collisions with aircraft. As Flight Safety Australia reported last month, Gold Coast Airport has used this approach to great effect.

The report also identified pilot training not being able to meet the growth of the global jet fleet, which is set to ‘almost double to 40,000 by 2030’ as an emerging risk. Allianz touched on the training itself, asking whether ‘airline pilots are too reliant on automation’; particularly after last year’s Asiana Airlines accident and the 2009 Air France crash. The report identified that pilots’ ‘failure to master the latest changes in cockpit technology (will) pose an increasing threat to passengers.’

Lithium-ion batteries—both installed on the aircraft such as Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner and in devices being brought on board by passengers—were also identified as a future aviation risk.

‘Whether it is cameras, laptops or electronic books, today’s aircrafts are increasingly filled with passengers carrying hundreds of electrical devices…just one small battery is powerful enough to explode and start a fire.’

This occurrence was realised earlier this year on a passenger flight from Melbourne to Fiji when a case carrying almost 20 lithium batteries caught fire as it was being loaded onto the aircraft.

Finally, the insurer noted a report in Nature Climate Change, which predicted increased atmospheric turbulence as a result of a warming planet. If carbon dioxide emissions double by 2050, the chance of encountering turbulence could increase by between 40 per cent and 170 per cent on the North Atlantic Flight corridor, Allianz said.

‘While light turbulence only results in shaking the aircraft, more severe episodes can ‘injure passengers and cause structural damage to planes, costing an estimated $150m a year.’

You can read the full report at Allianz’s website.


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