Cargo Plane Bomb Plot Hits Business Travelers’ Cellphones

The Yemeni cargo plane terror plot may have been foiled, but by using a detonator linked to a cellphone, it struck a blow against those lobbying for voice and text messaging services on trans-oceanic flights.

The Yemen parcel bombers, though failing to hit their intended targets, have unintentionally scored a direct hit on the future of business travel and in-flight cellphone service.

One of the two parcel bombs—the one intercepted in Dubai on Friday—had a detonating device linked to a cellphone. Detonators are the most direct clue to the intended targets of the two bombs, and confusion persists about whether they were intended to bring down the cargo planes or be triggered when delivered to the two Chicago synagogues they were addressed to.

But one thing is for sure: The use of a cellphone in the bomb architecture is a chilling warning of what could happen if business class in-flight services are allowed to include voice and text messaging by cellphone.

The idea of a terrorist placing one phone call and being able to bring down this huge airplane, with as many as 550 passengers aboard, is now urgently palpable.

For some time, pressure has been building on international airlines to provide cellphone service on trans-oceanic flights. Major international carriers have been in a kind of arms race to provide the most luxurious comforts and advanced technologies for their valuable business-class clients, whose fat fares help subsidize the cost of the cheaper cabins. Now the carriers are on the brink of introducing WiFi connectivity on many routes.

Singapore Airlines, always an aggressive innovator, is believed to be planning to include cellphone service in its business cabin WiFi as early as next year. Singapore and Emirates, based in Dubai, were early adopters of the Airbus A380 super jumbo, and both have pushed lavish standards in their business- and first-class cabins, including on-board showers. The idea of a terrorist placing one phone call and being able to bring down this huge airplane, with as many as 550 passengers aboard, is now urgently palpable.

The first line of defense against such a plot, the screening of everything going into the cargo hold as well as all electronic devices carried on board by passengers, clearly failed in the case of the Yemen-originated bombs, which were highly sophisticated, using printers and toners to mask the devices.

Even if the screening of cargo were to become as sophisticated as the bombs it is designed to detect—it will forever be a competition of technologies—adding the risk of on-board cellphone use is not something that anti-terrorism authorities will want even to consider.

The most devastating use of cellphones as the triggering device for bombs was the February 2004 attack on commuter trains in Madrid. Attacks on airplanes usually have involved timers or devices linked to air pressure, set to go off when an airplane reaches a certain altitude.

As it is, cellphone use aboard commercial jets is banned in the U.S., and we are all familiar with the stated reason, that it can interfere with the airplane’s own systems. Policies vary: Some airlines allow cellphone use as soon as the flight touches the runway; others ban it until the airplane is at the gate and the engines are shut down.

An airplane cruising at 35,000-40,000 feet can receive in-flight live TV from a satellite service, as JetBlue provides, and in the future the WiFi link to broadband for email and Web surfing will similarly come via satellite links. The utility of WiFi for business use during nonstop flights that can now last as long as 18 hours, much of that time over water, is a big attraction to hyperactive business travelers. Many other passengers, though, will be glad to know that cellphone use is unlikely to be part of the package.

Clive Irving is senior consulting editor at Conde Nast Traveler, specializing in aviation. Find his blog, Clive Alive, at CliveAlive.Truth.Travel.