American Airlines flight scare: Back to basics on false alerts

Image copyright Reuters Image caption Following the alert of the Flight Operational Safety Report by the Federal Aviation Administration, we investigate the same information and put it into perspective. What was the incident? The…

American Airlines flight scare: Back to basics on false alerts

Image copyright Reuters Image caption Following the alert of the Flight Operational Safety Report by the Federal Aviation Administration, we investigate the same information and put it into perspective.

What was the incident?

The incident occurred on 15 September 2018, when two American Airlines passenger flights approaching an airport in Mississippi were reported by ground controllers to be less than 3km apart. The latest in a series of fake flight reports has been labelled a hoax by a congressional watchdog agency, the US Government Accountability Office.

However, this is not the first time that false flight alerts have been reported to the FAA. In May, two fake data screens were found aboard an Air Canada passenger flight that had landed in San Francisco.

At the time, an airline spokesman said that an investigation “will look into how this information was relayed in real time”.

How many flights were affected?

It has not been confirmed how many flights were prevented from landing, but four Boeing 737-800 aircraft were sent to other airports around the country in order to reschedule passengers to meet local terminal flights.

How do the flights compare?

The emergency alert, rather than an actual emergency flight report, requires the pilot to report additional information about their flight to the authorities, including the aircraft identification.

Image copyright EPA Image caption The message sent from the outbound flight

But it is the electronic alert to air traffic controllers, rather than the ground crew contact, that can lead to confusion when it comes to determining whether an incident is a hoax or not.

In this case, on board a Boeing 737, passengers were not given a written warning about the wayward flight. There are still questions about the identity of the aircraft, which is thought to have been flying at an altitude of approximately 1,000ft (305m) when it was reported to be 3km apart.

Additionally, if an accurate reading was received from the wireless phone or mobile handset used to send the false text, it could be tricky to determine where the message originated from. This could impact on determining which one to take more seriously.

In fact, some experts are also suggesting that the notification may have been sent by someone else to trick air traffic controllers into believing that a real emergency had been reported.

Does this mean the alert is a hoax?

This is one of the first times that the ground controller report has been scrutinised as a potential hoax.

However, this is not the first time that false air traffic alert messages have occurred. In the summer of 2018, two false data screens were found aboard an Air Canada flight that had landed in San Francisco.

Also this year, a fake alert was issued via a freight plane messaging service.

How did authorities respond?

This alert triggered an air safety alert for FAA protocols that were then forwarded to air traffic controllers. The FAA said that a review showed that it is possible to spot such reports because of the “serious nature of the incident”.

The FAA has assured that the investigation will be completed quickly, and in a way that makes the case clear that this was a hoax.

How many alerts do we have?

The FAA said in a statement that it has detected “about 5,000 false reports to air traffic control centers in the US a year since 2010, which is similar to reporting rates over the last 30 years”.

In relation to this current incident, spokesman Jim Peters said: “we remind those that send false reports to abide by all FAA safety regulations and our flight operating rules. These safety regulations state that anyone who sends a false report of an emergency to the FAA could face criminal charges and a fine of up to $75,000.”

How is it detected?

According to the FAA, air traffic controllers are trained to “see patterns” and spot potentially “significant events”, such as a decision to depart to another location. The FAA warns that if a false report is detected, the next step is to “identify the technical problem or weakness that caused the error and correct it to avoid the occurrence of similar problems”.

“In the case of this false alert that occurred in Mississippi, as a result of information being provided to air traffic controllers via the wireless device that was associated with the false report, this text was sent into the FAA flight operational rules database that automatically routes messages to air traffic control centres”.

The FAA has reported that the caller was also requested to “certify that they are familiar with all aspects of FAA dispatch procedures”.

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