GPS Jamming of Commercial Flights Hit a Worrying Milestone

This could lead to flight delays if it becomes widespread

Radar screen
There's been a worrying development for transatlantic travel.
Getty Images

What happens when a commercial flight encounters intentional interference to one of its core systems? Unfortunately, that ominous situation has moved out of the realm of the theoretical. According to a news bulletin from the Institute for the Study of War, we’ve just witnessed what the organization dubbed “the first confirmed instance of GPS jamming on commercial trans-Atlantic routes.”

According to a social media account specializing in data and signal analysis, a transatlantic flight was unable to ascend above a certain point because of GPS signal jamming taking place in the area. This appears to have been an isolated incident, but another organization — the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation — explained the possible risks if this becomes more widespread. “[T]housands of flights a day could be impacted with delays and cancellations,” the organization wrote earlier this week.

At issue here is the way that aircrafts use GPS when navigating over the Atlantic Ocean. Given the lack of radar systems over the ocean, aircraft must use GPS to navigate, and issues with GPS, the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation explained, requires aircraft to travel with more distance between them.

What was the cause of the jamming? Well, that’s where this gets interesting. The Institute for the Study of War pointed to increased GPS jamming levels in Poland and near the Baltic region since late last year, which “some analysts and experts” believe is the result of “Russian electronic warfare (EW) activity from the Kaliningrad area and near St. Petersburg.”

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Writing at Business Insider, Tom Porter observed that airlines in northern Europe have reported instances of GPS jamming in recent months. Whether this is coincidental, side effect of the Russia-Ukraine war or something more ominous remains to be seen. But the recent involvement of a transatlantic flight certainly suggests the issue is getting worse.


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