The days of sitting for hours on an airplane with nothing but a book and portable music player to entertain you are over (unless you like to read and listen to music, which I do). Thanks to "airplane" mode on gadgets and relaxed FAA rules, you can use any of your gadgets in flight.
Even better, more airlines are adding Wi-Fi to their planes so you can have Internet access at 30,000 feet. It's like you never left the terminal. Unfortunately, that Wi-Fi access could eventually come at a scary price.
The airline Wi-Fi upgrade is happening at the same time as an on-going FAA upgrade called the Next Generation Air Transportation System. It's basically overhauling how every part of the airline system from radar and air-traffic control to voice communication and weather systems communicate.
Here's a cool graphic from the GAO's report showing the changes.
Connecting everything through IP networks is a big step forward, and it would be like you creating a "smart" home with connected appliances, thermostats, lights, and gadgets. However, while there will be a lot of benefits, it also creates some serious dangers.
When it comes to smart homes and Internet-connected gadgets, I've warned you about the danger of hackers breaking in from the Internet. But the danger of a hacker taking control of your toaster pales in comparison to a hacker taking control of a radar tower or other critical system.
They could shut down air-traffic control at a critical moment or trick a radar station into sending a plane incorrect data. Then there's the IP network on the plane itself.
Given how IP systems work, the plane's Wi-Fi for customers is on the same network as the airplane's flight computers. While there are firewalls between them, hackers specialize in breaking through firewalls.
The worst-case scenario is a hacker with a laptop bringing down a plane, or taking control and holding it hostage in flight. Nearly as bad is someone on the plane connecting with a gadget that has a virus, or visiting a site that brings a virus on to the plane's network. According to the GAO, that's not a far-fetched idea.
That's why the GAO and security experts are working with the FAA to address security concerns now. While a lot of what the FAA is doing meets most industry standards for security, the GAO's report highlights more it can do as the systems come online. And given that lives are at stake, that's a good thing.
Click here to read the full 56-page GAO report (note: it's a PDF file).