Airlines, FAA turn to Web for security, flight planning

Several major airlines and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration are turning to the Internet, with all of its inherent security vulnerabilities, to improve antiterror information sharing and the safety of flight operations.

In the wake of last year's terrorist hijackings and the near success of the shoe-bomb plot on an American Airlines flight on Dec. 22, American and other airlines have turned to the Internet as a way to keep pilots informed of critical federal security warnings in a more timely manner. In addition, the FAA in recent weeks has established a public Web site that commercial and general aviation pilots can use to download visual-range data for most of the nation's major airports. Visual-range data is used to plan alternate landing routes in the event of bad weather.

According to a report in The Washington Post, American, Delta Air Lines Inc., United Air Lines Inc. and US Airways Group Inc. have established Web-based systems to keep pilots informed of urgent security advisories sent out by the Transportation Security Administration. The issue was thrust into the spotlight when a government warning about the potential use of shoe explosives was sent to American on Dec. 11 but was not forwarded to pilots before the bombing attempt 11 days later.

A spokeswoman for United declined to provide details on the company's Web-based bulletin board system, saying only that doing so would "open the door to what we do from a security perspective and how we do it." American, Delta and US Airways didn't return calls for comment.

Larry Johnson, CEO and co-founder of international business-consulting company The Business Exposure Reduction Group Associates LLC and a former deputy director of transportation security in the State Department's Office of Counterterrorism, applauded the airlines for using the Web to "make the pilots part of the [security] solution."

"The U.S. government has to do a better job of keeping other security professionals informed," said Johnson.

However, he's less enthusiastic about the FAA putting operational data on the Internet. "Posting visual-range data on a public Internet is insane," said Johnson. "That makes the terrorist job of doing operational planning easier."

"There's always a concern with putting operational data on the Internet," acknowledged James Wetherly, research and development lead for the FAA's Traffic Flow Management Integrated Product Team. However, "with [visual range data], a lot of this information is about the environment that is often available locally," he said.

"The Web is being used for advisory purposes only, not to replace the tried-and-true method of communicating [range] data ... which is voice," said Wetherly. "We take every precaution to ensure that the systems and data viewed from the outside are secure. And we have an infrastructure that provides a pretty deep moat to ensure that."

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