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Were the disturbing noises that came from the PA systems of American Airlines aircraft the result of a hack? And what else did this affect?

“Seeing is believing”, they say, but apparently “hearing is believing”, too. This unnerving matter isn’t an entirely new story. However, it went viral this month, when someone managed to record it, for the world to see and hear. But this is a mixed blessing – this isn’t necessarily the most pleasant thing to hear.

Hack or not, this event appears to have affected the PA (public address) systems on a number of American Airlines flights. Emerson Collins (@emersoncollins on Instagram) recorded this clip on the 6th of September this year. Then another passenger reportedly heard the same thing on flight AA-1631, on the 18th of September. This happened on a Boeing 737-800 – specifically, this is N982NN, a seven-year-old aircraft.

 

Multiple Flights

This was a flight from Santa Ana John Wayne Airport (KSNA) in California, to Dallas Fort Worth International (KDFW) in Texas. On his flight (on the 6th of September, also to DFW, but originating in LAX), Collins reported that the American Airlines cabin crew could not stop these PA transmissions, calling them a hack or a prank. Unconfirmed reports suggest that this has happened several times before, on different American Airlines aircraft, as far back as July.

The issue reportedly affected 737-800 and A321 flights. Photo: Eric Salard, CC BY-SA 2.0

But while many are focusing on the funny side of the matter, others take it more seriously. Do these events in American Airlines flights mean that someone can actually hack an aircraft’s PA system? And what does this mean about the rest of the aircraft’s systems? Officially, the airline reassured the public that the PA systems in its jets don’t involve a Wi-Fi component, that a passenger or someone on the ground could hack. There is no external access to these systems.

Far from a hack, American Airlines states that these sounds were the result of a mechanical issue with a PA amplifier. However, many listeners remain convinced that these sounds are human. Theories online are running wild, with some offering suggestions on why this only appears to involve American Airlines aircraft.

Did Someone HACK American Airlines’ PA System?

Photo: Ibagli

 

American Airlines PA Trouble – Hack Or Fault?

One such theory has to do with something its proponents call a medical intercom. The theory is that American Airlines has installed audio jacks in the overhead bins of its aircraft, at “regular intervals”. Someone with knowledge of such a system could attach a device to it that would transmit these eerie sounds – or so goes the theory. However, others online suggest that such “medical intercoms” ceased to exist before the days of the 737NG and the A320.

Did Someone HACK American Airlines’ PA System?

In any case, American Airlines’ crews dealing with this hack or malfunction have reportedly reset the PA system, to make it go away. And while the PA system itself doesn’t affect the cockpit’s systems, pilots and cabin crews temporarily losing the ability to talk to each other, is something that could have more serious implications.

It will be interesting to see if any more information comes out regarding this matter. The story has gotten the attention of many observers, including sound engineers and analysts. More theories and explanations abound, ranging from troublesome updates of pre-recorded messages to faulty human voice recognition algorithms. The latter explanation essentially confirms American’s statements on the matter.

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