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Disruptions to Airplane GPS Systems Are on the Rise—What Passengers Should Know | Frommer's Hananeko_Studio / Shutterstock

Disruptions to Airplane GPS Systems Are on the Rise—What Passengers Should Know

Pilots have been warned to be on the lookout for "jamming" and "spoofing" of aircraft navigation systems. What does that mean for passengers?

If there’s one thing most of us take for granted in boarding a commercial aircraft, it’s that the plane is headed where we expect it to go. If you’re flying from New York to Miami, it should be safe to assume the plane will land in South Florida.

But in recent months there have been some concerning headlines about issues with aircraft navigation systems in some parts of the world.

This fall the aviation organization OPSGROUP has sounded the alarm about apparent disruptions to such systems that, like the GPS on your phone, rely on satellites orbiting the earth to provide precise time and location information in the cockpit. 

The reports detail recent “jamming” incidents that have confronted pilots. Imagine if your car’s GPS system just stopped working all of a sudden—but this is a commercial aircraft.

Perhaps more troubling, the group has also received reports of “spoofing” incidents where pilots essentially receive bogus, incorrect GPS information in their nav systems. That would be like your car’s GPS system telling you you’re on one road when, in fact, you’re on another altogether. 

In one recent report received by OPSGROUP, a disruption caused an aircraft to veer, unplanned, into Iranian airspace.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA)—a major trade organization for the world’s airlines—has warned that these disruptions have become “a significant safety risk.”

Bad navigation info could potentially lead aircraft off routes that are carefully managed by air traffic control. And "spoofing” could affect critical cockpit systems, IATA warns, conceivably prompting scenarios such as the pilot being advised to “pull up” to avoid an obstacle when in fact the plane is nowhere near coming into contact with anything. 

OPSGROUP says it has received reports of these incidents affecting the same types of jets many of us board on a regular basis, from the Embraer 190 (a smaller regional jet) to much larger Boeing 737, 747, and 777 aircraft. 

Now, before you start canceling every flight you’ve booked, there are a few things you should know.

First, these incidents appear to be happening in parts of the world far from the United States. Specifically, the GPS issues seem to occur in regions entrenched in conflict, from parts of the Middle East to airspace in the vicinity of Russia and Ukraine. 

Who’s behind these incidents—and why—remains something of a mystery, but the interference is likely tied to the ongoing conflicts in those places, a top aviation cybersecurity expert tells Frommer’s.

Researchers at the University of Texas reportedly traced the source of some spoofing activity to Iran.

And as Haaretz reports, some GPS jamming has been carried out by Israel in an effort to thwart drone attacks by Hamas and Hezbollah. 

Despite the concerning nature of these incidents for ordinary passengers, though, U.S. travelers shouldn’t fret, said David Harvie, a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s College of Aviation.

“For an American traveling—normal travel—that’s not something they should be anxious about or really worried about,” Harvie said. 

A spike in navigation interruptions

The uptick in these radio frequency interruptions dates back to February 2022, right around the start of the war in Ukraine, according to a report from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency—essentially Europe’s version of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. 

The bulletin, updated last month, cited an “overall growth of intensity and sophistication” in these GPS-related events. The most affected areas the agency outlined: regions around the eastern Mediterranean, Black Sea, Baltic Sea, and Arctic.

Citing data from French aircraft manufacturing giant Airbus, IATA noted more than 49,605 radio frequency interference events were reported around the world in 2022—more than four times the number seen in 2021.

IATA encouraged airlines and air traffic control personnel to be on the alert for potential signs that something might be awry.

In the U.S., the FAA issued its own safety bulletin this fall, according to information shared by the National Business Aviation Administration. The alert encouraged more diligent communication between cockpit and control tower for planes flying in the affected regions, and instructed flight crews to monitor equipment closely for any discrepancies and, should the worst happen, be prepared to operate without GPS systems if necessary.

But we shouldn’t worry?

Notwithstanding the unsettling nature of these warnings, Harvie, the aviation cybersecurity expert, tells us he would feel more than comfortable boarding an airplane.

On top of the fact that these disruptions are primarily occurring in places where aircraft are likely already being operated with heightened awareness, given the circumstances, there’s also a basic aviation principle that ensures these planes can still fly even if something like this does go wrong.

“The idea behind aviation is, you have to plan for resilience: ‘Ok, if this system goes out, what’s the backup?’” Harvie explained. “Would it cause some disruptions [with] probably people having to react and adjust? Yeah. Just like anything else. But there’s resilience. There’s backups.”

One major U.S. pilots union tells Frommer’s it’s been briefed “several times” regarding the recent GPS incidents. Pilots are “well-versed in the threat” and have received reminders about procedures already in place to counter such scenarios, said a spokesperson for the Allied Pilots Association, which represents the pilots of American Airlines. 

But have the recent incidents across the world exposed vulnerabilities that could eventually show up in air travel systems elsewhere? 

“As you get more systems reliant on GPS, I think there’s going to be more emphasis on how you make sure you have secure, backup GPS,” Harvie answered, likening the growth of GPS to the growth of the internet, on which the function of your television and even refrigerator may now depend. 

As more systems use GPS, more areas arise where things could potentially go wrong—suggesting, perhaps, we need more solutions to shore up any vulnerabilities in the technology. 

Still, Harvie wouldn’t cancel a trip anytime soon. 

“Would I be scared? I would not think so,” he said. “I’ll never say there’s never a threat, but … what’s the probability? Very, very low.”