Cybersecurity Looms Large For Technology-Reliant Airlines

Southwest Airlines first flight to Hawaii
Airlines like Southwest are looking at their Cybersecurity strategies.
Credit: Southwest Airlines

Two of the world’s largest LCCs are experiencing very different pandemics, partly due to historic management decisions and partly due to geography.

In the U.S., Dallas-based Southwest Airlines is sitting on $17 billion of cash having booked an operating profit for the first half of 2021, helped by high vaccination rates in the U.S. and $1.5 billion of payroll support from the federal government.

But in Southeast Asia, where government aid has been minimal and vaccinations are proceeding slowly, Air Asia posted a roughly $235 million loss for the first quarter and is desperately seeking new funds.

In response, founder Tony Fernandes is seeking to pivot the company towards more digital ventures, while Southwest, in contrast, is seeking to boost its core airline operations by exercising Boeing 737 MAX options.

Despite the differing approaches, however, both airlines recognize the importance of technology and IT to modern airline operations—as well as the extra risks these bring.

“We are very technology-dependent as an industry,” commented Southwest Chairman Gary Kelly on a recent earnings call, adding, “but that does suggest that we need to be a top drawer when it comes to our technology.”

Kelly noted that most airlines are taking cybersecurity increasingly seriously, but also said that “it is sort of a bottomless pit when it kind of comes down to how much does one need to do.”

Kelly was alluding to the complexity of protecting IT systems and data from varied and evolving cyber-threats, something that Southwest Airlines President Tom Nealon also described as a huge challenge.

“I think we’re all struggling, not just airlines, but I think every company is struggling trying to figure out where to invest its cybersecurity dollars,” Nealon said. “What elements are the most exposed? Where is the biggest risk? How do you defend against that? It’s kind of a moving target, but that is a real source of focus.”

Alex Derber

Alex Derber is a UK-based aviation journalist and editor of the Engine Yearbook. He contributes regular features, news and opinion pieces about the…