Sky-high error in Apple Maps leads drivers onto airport runway

Filed Under: Apple, Featured

Apple maps image modified from image on Flikr, by Frederik HermannWell, OK, yes, there were signs saying they shouldn't be driving along the taxiway.

Then there was the motion-activated gate. That was a little officious, but whatever. They drove through.

There were more signs, and lights, and true, painted markings, and there was, actually, something that suggested that airplanes might share that road and that maybe drivers should not be there at all.

They didn't turn back, though.

"Don't worry" they said. "We're good!"

After all, they were using Apple Maps. What could possibly go wrong?

"They must have been persistent," assistant manager Angie Spear at the Fairbanks International Airport, in the US state of Alaska, told the BBC in the best understatement ever when describing not one, mind you, but two motorists who in the past three weeks have driven not only along the taxiway and through the motion-detection gateway and way, way past all the signs telling them not to be there but also right across one of the runaways - as in, the place where airplanes might squash you and your car like a metal/flesh panini.

According to the Alaska Dispatch, the drivers who followed the directions on their iPhones not only reached airport property, but also crossed the runway and drove right over to the airport ramp side of the passenger terminal.

The drivers were both out-of-towners who apparently trusted their Apple Maps more than signposts telling them to get the heck off the roads they were on.

The mapping application wasn't telling drivers specifically to drive onto the runway, but it sure made it seem like that was the logical place to go, according to the Alaska Dispatch:

The turn-by-turn directions were specific, using the access route that general aviation pilots use to the East Ramp, which is on the other side of the runway from the main airport terminal.

The map directions concluded by telling drivers to go to Taxiway Bravo, shown as "Taxiway B" on the satellite image in the app. The directions did not tell drivers to cross the main runway used regularly by 737s and other aircraft.

But once drivers reached the taxiway, it was only natural for them to look up and see the terminal on the other side of the runway. So that’s where they drove.

Apple has reportedly issued a temporary fix, so that users searching for directions are told they're "not available." The earlier taxiway route no longer shows up.

The airport told the Alaska Dispatch that it had complained to Apple three weeks ago via the local attorney general's office.

Melissa Osborn, chief of operations at the airport, said the airport was trying to avoid potential future paninis:

We asked them to disable the map for Fairbanks until they could correct it, thinking it would be better to have nothing show up than to take the chance that one more person would do this.

A "lot of legal speak" ensued, Spear told the Alaska Dispatch, but the issue wasn't fixed until Wednesday, when Apple took directions to the airport off the map, unless users type in the exact street address for the terminal.

In the meantime barricades had been erected to block access to the final stretch of the taxiway.

Sadly, this is par for the course for Apple's woebegone Maps.

The Maps app has been on the iOS, then iPhone OS, since the first generation of iPhones debuted in 2007. Up until the version released on 19 September 2012, however, Apple Maps was actually powered by Google Maps.

You know, Google Maps? The location app that takes drivers along a different, longer route to the airport's car park? Without telling them to drive where they might get flattened? That one.

Since it debuted, Apple Maps has been the Rodney Dangerfield of maps apps: it gets no respect, but for very good reasons.

A selection from a vast collection of incidents:

  • Relocated landmarks, buildings in the middle of rivers, missing train stations, and relocated towns, according to Macworld.
  • The wrong location listed for the Apple Store in Sydney, Australia, as The Register reported.
  • Marking an entire city as a hospital, misclassifying a nursery as an airport, and identifying the nearest gas station to be as far as 76 miles away from the user's location, as Gizmodo reported.

It's all fun and games (mostly Hide and Seek) until somebody gets hurt.

Typically, Naked Security writes about information security, but in this most recent case of Apple Maps and the airport runway incidents, it's a case of disinformation leading to serious, tangible, real-world security issues.

I don't mean to be a Google fangirl, but Apple, you've been wandering in the wilderness since you divorced Google Maps.

Oh, and this should probably go without saying, but smartphone users, please, look up once in a while.

The scenery can be quite salubrious, particularly when it comes to signs telling you that your smartphone may have led you astray.

Image of runway courtesy of Shutterstock.

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16 Responses to Sky-high error in Apple Maps leads drivers onto airport runway

  1. Peter · 741 days ago

    There's actually an even more security related question here, and that is why it is even possible to just drive in to the runways of an international airport in 2013? With TSA screening every passenger to board each plane, there should be some kind of security in effect to keep unauthorized personnel away from the runways. It should be much more dangerous having the wrong people there, than boarding the planes.

  2. Julian · 741 days ago

    Siri says, "Look out for low-flying traffic!"

    On a more serious note, how is it possible for the general public to get airside without, apparently, any security at all? Isn't this rather more worrying?

  3. So much for the security of our airports.

  4. John · 741 days ago

    The real concern about this story, the thing that we really should fear, is these 2 people presumably hold a licence to drive a vehicle on a public street. What's next? Coffee cups with warnings on them saying "caution contents may be hot". Oh...

  5. Ah, good old United States airport security theatre. Steal laptops because you don't like the look of someone, but let any muppet get airside with no identification. Genius.

  6. 2072 · 741 days ago

    Their faith in Apple's devices makes them blind...

  7. Guest · 741 days ago

    Yeah, Apple is the problem.
    Amazes me that those people even knew how to turn their phone on.

  8. Bruce · 741 days ago

    Just hope the guy flying the plane isn't using Google Maps..... :-)

  9. Bart B · 741 days ago

    Great article, till the fangirl comes out. Why not be honest and mention that other GPS services, including Google maps, have done daft things too? What is to be gained by implying that Apple has a monopoly on GPS woopsies?

    It's not like no one ever followed a GPS into danger before Apple released maps - cars have been directed into rivers and the wrong way up one way streets LONG before Apple Maps was even a glint in Apple's eye!

    It might well be true that Apple have had more map snafus than Google, especially if you just look at the last year. That would be a valid point to make, though it is to be expected. Google and Garmin and other have had years to iron out bugs, Apple are new to the space, and every new product has bugs, that's normal and entirely expected. Apple doesn't run on unicorn tears, it's just a fallible as anyone else.

    • Larry Marks · 741 days ago

      It's not the maps. All the GPS maps come from either Navteq or TeleAtlas. Even Google bases its maps on these--look at the fine print copyrights. The problem is the lousy software that interprets them.

  10. First Last · 741 days ago

    You cant fix stupid. People blindly following a gps... A-maze-ing.

  11. Meg · 741 days ago

    There's also a trust model issue here: people trust virtual advice received through apps on their smartphones more than their "common" Spidey-sense that should tell them they're doing something wrong. While I get ample evidence every day that common sense isn't common at all, this blind faith in an app (an *APP* for pete's sake) has the horrifying implication that some people don't think for themselves any more.

  12. Kevin · 741 days ago

    Google Maps wanted me to take a short cut through White Sands Missile Range. You know, the place with armed guards at the gates and roads that need explosive ordinance disposal sweeps before you drive down them? I found that mapquest didn't want me to get arrested or blown up, so I followed their directions.

  13. Andrew · 741 days ago

    nice one apple ! put peoples lives in danger. well I hope this makes people more aware that these devices can cause a lot of heartache and should not be trusted so easily. man made devices with man made errors.

    What will apple think of next !

  14. Beth H · 741 days ago

    Since I do not have an iPhone I want to ask: Does anyone know if Google maps be accessed at all on iPhones? Or has Apple made that difficult / impossible?

    (They do have a way of deep-sixing anything they don't like)

    • MrGutts · 740 days ago

      Google maps for IOS can be downloaded as a stand alone app.

      People should have used Waze! Everyone should use Waze. Then again people who blindly follow GPS's on to a airport, into a lake, into a bridge ( truck drivers ) and out into a dessert 110 degree temps where you will loose cell coverage and die if not prepaired. Those people should NOT be behind the wheel of anything.

      Well maybe Super Mario Cart .

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.