Since the inception of commercial aviation, the industry has been a target for hostile entities seeking to disrupt or control flight operations. Insurance carriers and underwriters, in response, have been tirelessly working to understand and mitigate these risks, providing a safety net for the aviation industry. However, the advent of technology has brought forth a new, insidious threat - signal jamming.

In the past several months, a series of alarming incidents have jeopardized passenger safety. Finnair, Finland’s national carrier, made the difficult decision to suspend landings at Estonia’s Tartu airport. This action came after two aircraft encountered last-minute GPS malfunctions, compelling them to abort their descents and return to Helsinki.

These disruptions have escalated tensions, leading to a diplomatic row as Estonia and other Baltic states level accusations of cyber and electronic warfare against Russia. The gravity of the situation is underscored by reports of approximately 46,000 aircraft experiencing GPS malfunctions over the Baltic region in the last year alone. The use of drones and countermeasures developed in the Russia/Ukraine War has improved and spread jamming skills.

Insurance companies are now grappling with the challenge of quantifying the risk posed by signal jamming. Factors such as the frequency of jamming incidents, the potential for damage, and the cost of preventative measures all come into play when assessing premiums.

Understanding Signal Jamming

Signal jamming refers to the intentional disruption of communication channels through the emission of radio signals. These signals can interfere with the normal operation of communication systems, causing disruptions in navigation, communication, and control systems of an aircraft. The increasing prevalence of this technology, often used maliciously, presents a significant risk to aviation safety. In extreme cases, signal jamming can lead to catastrophic accidents.

Aviation Insurance Risks

Traditionally, many aviation insurance policies provide for exclusions from war and other perils such as noise, pollution, interference with the use of property and electromagnetic interference. These clauses exclude coverage for claims caused by these events. In order for the subject matter to be insured against war risks or other perils, the appropriate wording must be inserted and there will be a corresponding increase in premiums, to offset the risk to the insurer.

Wording ambiguities leave insurers and reinsurers open to claims arising from signal jamming. Frequently, policies exclude electrical and electromagnetic interference unless they are caused by or result in a crash, fire or in-flight emergency. War risk exclusions refer to acts of persons for political or terrorist purposes.

Such ambiguity could lead to scenarios where insurers are carrying huge risks unwittingly. For instance, consider a scenario where an aircraft’s communication system is jammed by hackers during a critical phase of flight, leading to a fatal accident. The insurer cannot rely on the interference exclusion, which specifically provides for coverage in the case of a crash.

Likewise, in order to prove that the hackers acted for political and not economic or other personal purposes, the insurer would have to investigate and show a demonstrable link between them and politically or terrorist backed entities, a near impossible task in today’s geopolitical climate.

Mitigating the Risk

To mitigate the risks associated with signal jamming, aviation companies and insurers must work together to develop comprehensive risk management strategies. These may include investing in anti-jamming technologies, enhancing pilot training programs, and lobbying for stricter domestic and international regulations against the use of jamming devices.

Signal jamming also raises important legal and policy questions. For example, who is liable if a signal jamming incident leads to an accident? Is it the person using it, the manufacturers that the airline relied upon or the airline itself for not having adequate safeguards in place?

These questions need to be addressed by insurers in order to fully understand the risk they take on in today’s era of hybrid cyber and electronic interference and warfare and to determine their approach to aviation coverage and premiums.

This article was authored by Adam Silberman, a candidate attorney in the Johannesburg Aviation Team.

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