Will industry address vulnerability beneath the carpet of the 777?

Rotation

As the aviation industry secures itself by ensuring passenger personal electronic devices are charged and rerouting flights around war zones, a vulnerability lurks just beneath the carpet of the venerable Boeing 777, and has attracted attention on aviation forums and social media.

In the forward galley area near the L1 door and flight deck, a small access panel sits below the carpet which acts as the gateway to the 777’s electronics and engineering bay. The bay, referred to as the ‘E/E bay’, contains many of the 777’s extremely sensitive systems. A recently posted YouTube video, below, shows how shockingly easy it is to access the E/E bay, and how seemingly little has been done to keep people out.

The systems in the E/E bay vary from fuse panels to the Airplane Information Management System (AIMS), also known as “the brains” of the aircraft. AIMS provides flight and maintenance crews all pertinent information concerning the overall condition of the airplane, its maintenance requirements and its key operating functions, including flight, thrust and communications management, according to Boeing’s description. Also in the E/E bay are several tanks containing oxygen connected to the flight crews’ masks.

Needless to say, any flight would be extremely vulnerable if a passenger were to access this bay in-flight. The vulnerability seems to exist on some Boeing 777s, 767s and 747s, as other models (including those manufactured by Airbus) have either a locked access panel, or the panel is located inside the flight deck.

A late 2013 post on pprune.org (Professional Pilots Rumor Network) notes that the E/E hatch on the Boeing 787 requires a special tool to open, but that this security feature had not trickled down to the 777 at that time. Additionally, it noted that some airlines have bolted the E/E hatch shut not because of security concerns, but due to incidents where employees would fall down the hatch when someone else was inside doing maintenance. Indeed, Boeing published this article on how crew can avoid falls through proper and consistent use of hatch barriers.

Earlier this month the popular Crikey blog suggested that the technical media “has been at pains not to discuss” an alternative access route to the cockpit for years. But Air New Zealand confirmed the security flaw in the 777, said Crikey, after news surfaced that one of its captains locked a co-pilot out of the cockpit for several minutes. A 2012 video about the 777 E/E bay notes that the breakers for the flight deck door locking system are located in the E/E bay.

Whether a lack of directive to secure the E/E bay from passenger access may be due to cost or lack of concern, it seems odd that such a public vulnerability is allowed to exist on such a popular aircraft. Will industry address this issue now?

Boeing declined to comment. The FAA did not comment.

41 Comments

  1. martymcflyyyyy

    Why why why did he do this airborne with a plane load.of lives on board? One trip up and he could endanger lives. Wait until on the ground!
    With regard to MH370 if a person was to access this bay they would need to pacify cabin crew and access the E/E bay locate transponder circuit breaker and disable various systems before pilots could realise and make atc contact or turn back/divert.
    If foul play was part of MH370 they were well informed and trained.

    • MPoss

      With regard to MH370: “.. if a person was to access this bay they would need to pacify cabin crew and access the E/E bay…”

      Perhaps prior to boarding of crew and passengers, someone climbed down into the E/E bay with the assistance of another person standing above to re-insert the floor/hatch top and re-stick the Velcro carpet that covered it? At some point, maybe two members disguised as the cleaning crew? Two entered the emptied plane for cleaning but one left? The one below the E/E bay was instructed to wait until take-off when the plane is flying on auto-pilot – after one of the pilots signs off with ATC – that would be the cue to wear an oxygen mask connected to a portable tank. The person first disabled all oxygen to the cockpit and the emergency tanks for the pilots, then cut all the oxygen supplied to the cabin and the circuitry disabling all the emergency masks? Waiting till a specified time of complete asphyxiation of all human occupants – the hijackers began their mission to fly west or southwest and land the plane on an island of an old deserted runway built by the military that was utilized by many pilots used in WWII for combat missions? Once landed with barely enough room and several feet from falling off the cracked old tarmac – other terrorists immediately covered the plane with netting and vegetation to conceal it. They unloaded the dead bodies, rifling through purses and pockets for cash, diamond rings, gold etc. and any valuables in all of their luggage before dumping and covering all the bodies and luggage into one mass grave. Reason? Possibly planning something devious utilizing the plane for a future terrorist attack?

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  3. S Fariz

    I remember watching Executive Decision & seeing the anti-terrorist team camping in the avionics bay. I thought it was a fake.

    Apparently not so.

    • Yeah, they entered the EE bay from outside the aircraft – that was the unbelievable part. I was under the impression that pilots would go down into their EE bays from time to time to have a look, if the need arises. Bit surprised any aircraft would have this access outside the safety of a cockpit door.

  4. Robert D

    As an aviation avionics technician for over twenty-seven years, I have spent a lot of time in the E/E compartment of the 767 and 777. The hatch is a tremendous help and almost a necessity for performing maintenance functions. The hatch has a safety grid that can be attached when the door in removed. This keeps personnel from falling into the compartment while allowing testing equipment cables to run from the cockpit to the compartment. The safety bars are stowed securely and are supposed to stay in the aircraft. Some testing would be extremely difficult if not almost impossible without close access between the controls in the cockpit and the components in the E/E compartment. A pilot (or any non-technical personnel) should have no reason to enter or even open the hatch, especially in flight. There could be a few very remote emergency possibilities however.
    I completely agree the access to the compartment presents a security issue. I have always believed that the hatch door should be secured and or kept locked except for ground maintenance functions being performed by qualified and licensed individuals.

  5. Bob

    Many airlines have locked the hatch. The Captain has a key if the EE compartment must be entered during flight.

  6. “several tanks containing flammable oxygen”

    Jul 20, 2005 – The answer is resoundingly NO. Oxygen is NOT a fuel. Flames, fire and all related chemical reactions are a result of a FUEL being OXIDIZED,

    Overexcited and inaccurate reporting serves nobody any good. It seriously detracts from an otherwise excellent article.

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  8. Arcanum

    So just to be clear, if someone wanted to cause trouble via the E/E bay, he’d need to pull back the carpet, open the hatch, crawl down a ladder, and then start messing with things, all in plain sight of the cabin crew and passengers who presumably would do nothing to stop him. Frankly, that seems a bit ridiculous.

    As far as I know, the number of confirmed crashes caused by malicious tampering with the E/E bay is zero. On the other hand, I can think of at least 2 crashes caused by deliberate pilot action (not including MH370) and numerous other incidents caused by pilot error or frank incompetence (AF447 anyone?). In fact, an objective scientific review of airline safety would identify pilots as one of the leading causes of airplane crashes. Based solely on the data, you’d save more lives by eliminating pilots than by restricting E/E bay access (obviously I’m being facetious here, but that would be the logical conclusion).

    • Robert D

      I agree. As I stated, “Pilots have no need to be in or have access to the E/E compartment”, especially in flight. There is virtually nothing down there that they would need to interact with or are qualified to do. As far as being facetious, Asiana 214 would not have crashed in San Francisco if the pilot had been in the lavatory letting the autopilot land the aircraft instead of at the controls doing it himself.

    • Tolo

      Maybe it is “ridiciulous” to think of an individual accessing this door all by himself, in front of everyone, without anybody trying to stop him. I may agree to this statement if we consider the attacker as a simple curious boy just searching some thrilling sensations, without real goal.

      But what about the same situation with one or several determined accomplices equipped of any mean of pressure on the passengers or cabin crew members ?

      Even with a fast reaction from cabin crew or flight crew, the attackers may have enough time to harm severely the equipments inside the bay, with potentially hazardous consequences.

      The point is: this E/E bay is NOT supposed to be accessed by any untrusted individual: only flight crew or maintenance operators are supposed to enter this bay and manipulate these equipments. By introducing a weakness with such an easy access to the bay, the security assumption is broken, which dramatically increases the potentiality of occurrence of a catastrophic scenario. This is why this issue has been considered and solved by some “reponsible” airlines; unfortunately, the manufacturer himself seems not to care about this major issue. This is what people try to denounce.

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  10. martchat

    As an Licensed Avionics Mechanic; many years ago I had to go down to the E/E Bay on a 707 in flight to carry out radar checks in flight. Entry from the flightdeck and place to sand on the ground entry hatch. I have worked in the E/E Bay of the 777 many times and taught classes downt there ( not many studentsat a time) and have never heard of flight attendants needing to go down there, so I don’t see the purpose of showing this video

  11. The baron of ass

    OK I’ll bite. Seems this is nothing more than media fear mongering. To this day I have never heard or read of any incident concerning this article. Maybe one has slipped by me. This looks like a trap article designed to tantalize the reader with a link to an ongoing news story. Let’s demand fair informative journalism and lets scrap the sensationalism and press chicanery.

    • Mary Kirby
      Author

      You couldn’t be further from the truth. We consciously steered clear of sensationalism in penning this piece (though others have drawn potential significance to the MH370 investigation, we do not even mention it). The vulnerability cited here is not the E/E bay; it is the ease at which the hatch can be opened in the cabin. Some airlines have addressed it; others have not. The fact that a Varig pilot saw fit to make a video of this nature is newsworthy in its own right, but if we were in the business of generating “click bate” material, the headline would have read: “VIDEO: Varig pilot reveals security flaw in 777” or something along those lines. Feel free to look around the site at some of our varied content; you’ll see that we mean business.

      • The baron of ass

        Even if the story refers to the ease of access to the bay it’s still sensationalist reporting designed to either scare ( fear is a primary tool of manipulation and intimidation. I find almost all reporting today including the respected international news agencies to be biased, sensationalist, and self serving. I’m still searching for truly neutral unbiased, no pro or anti, no black and white but gray reporting . Can’t find middle ground.

        • Mary Kirby
          Author

          You are certainly welcome to your opinion but, as editor of this site, I know my own heart and my motive for running this piece. If you are concerned about media bias, you should be. Many corporations are in bed with mainstream media, and they often have a strong say in the “news” you read. Note that neither Boeing nor the FAA commented for this piece. If we were biased, we wouldn’t have even asked. Meanwhile, Air New Zealand previously flagged up a concern about this vulnerability; it’s refreshing that a smaller airline such as this had the gumption to do so.

        • Papa Oscar

          How could this article be sensationalist when it’s just exposing a very important security risk with the 777?

    • Papa Oscar

      The fact that you haven’t heard anything about the issue here exposed doesn’t mean the intent of the article is to be sensationalist. On the contrary, I’ve found it very informative and even people who have been in those E/E Bays have interacted here. Your comment just shows how egotistical you are: “Oh, if I haven’t heard anything about this, then they must be bananas”.

      This article is actually bringing into consideration a security flaw that, meanwhile we have no answers whatsoever about whatever happened to MH370, could mean a high security risk to every 777 flying out there in this very same moment. This for sure is something that the investigators should take into account and bring into the equation for the search of answers in the MH370 case. Could be a possible theory unless the opposite is proven.

      Just imagine how easy would it be to take a deliberate action on a plane with this feature.

      In aviation the “it has never happened” is the first thing that should be investigated, because it’s very likely that no corrective action has been taken for something we have never seen as a risk.

      Before 9/11 we had never heard of a 757 being hit against a skyscraper by a Cessna pilot…

      Today we have cameras, high security doors and special protocols for letting people come into the cockpit.

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  13. Bryan

    If any of the doors are ajar in my automobile a light is displayed on the dash. My understanding is that any access panel that is ajar would cause an indicator in the cockpit on any modern airplane. Is it possible to open the E/E hatch without alerting the flight crew?

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