How a Buggy iPad Update Caused Widespread Flight Delays

Does paper have a place in the sky, after all?

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Apr 29 2015, 4:51pm

Image: Flickr/flightlog

Dozens of American Airlines flights in Dallas, New York City, and Chicago, experienced unexpected delays yesterday when pilots' iPads unexpectedly crashed. The reason for the widespread crashes was a buggy update to the app that pilots use for everything from flight planning to checking the weather.

Passengers on the affected flights reported witnessing pilots in distress after their iPads powered down without warning. "The pilot came on and said that his first mate's iPad powered down unexpectedly, and his had too, and that the entire 737 fleet on American had experienced the same behavior," Philip McRell, one passenger, told Quartz.

According to Michael Pound, a representative for Jeppesen, a Boeing subsidiary that built the in-flight app that American Airlines pilots use, an app update was to blame for the widespread glitches.

"The issue causing several flights to be delayed last night was traced [to] a navigation database update causing a duplicate chart to be in existence for one airport," Pound told Motherboard in an email. "Pilots were given instructions for remedying the situation, which involved uninstalling and reinstalling the app. They were able to proceed normally afterward."

American Airlines pilots traded their flight bags—stacks of paper documents like manuals and maps that can weigh up to 40 pounds each—for electronic versions in the form of iPad apps like Jeppesen's Flightdeck Pro in 2013. Electronic Flight Bags, as they're called, contain the same kinds of important information that was included in paper versions, with the added bonus of being updatable without having to kill trees.

Amateur pilots have also latched on to iPads and apps to manage their flights. Some, like Garmin Pilot, cost as little as $75 per year.

"In terms of [Electronic Flight Bags] causing safety issues on flights this is the most widespread issue I've heard of," said Devin Lundberg, a researcher at the University of California who studies pilot app vulnerabilities, told Motherboard.

Security experts like Lundberg have warned that these kinds of flight apps might be vulnerable to hackers, who could feed false information to pilots. A key vulnerability pointed out by security researchers is how the apps are updated—if done without an encrypted connection, an attacker could load malicious code into an update.

While hackers may not have been involved in the case of American Airlines' widespread crashes, it shows how a bad update can make things go wrong for pilots, even on the ground.

American Airlines did not immediately respond to Motherboard's request for comment.

Does this mean that there's a place for paper in the sky after all? With an estimated annual savings of $1.2 million in fuel costs due to lighter loads in the air sans flight bags, it doesn't seem likely, unless you're making paper planes.

UPDATE: American Airlines has responded to Motherboard's request for comment and clarified the scope of the issue. The headline to this article has been changed to reflect this.