Will industry address vulnerability beneath the carpet of the 777?


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, later removed, 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.