Missile Watch

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Last Wednesday, The Washington Post reported the existence of a task force created to assess the ground-based threat to air travel and try to prevent the use of shoulder-launched ground-to-air missiles that could theoretically be launched against airliners from beyond the airport security perimeter. While military technology might provide some of the answers, the task force appears focused on enlisting the help of ordinary citizens to prevent such attacks. "There's a wide-ranging, active discussion about this issue," said Transportation Department spokesman Chet Lunner. According to the Post, the committee was working on the threat even before last November's unsuccessful portable missile attack on an Israeli airliner in Kenya.

...Neighborhood Watch-Type Program...

Among the ideas under consideration is a Neighborhood Watch-type of program that would train local police and residents near an airport to identify missile parts. As small as they are, shoulder-launched missiles can't be hidden under a terrorist's coat and the FBI hopes that if people know what to look for, they can call authorities before one can be assembled and launched. "Someone is not going to be able to just whip one of these things out of a briefcase," said FBI spokesman John Iannarelli. Officials are already studying the area around all major airports looking for places that might make particularly attractive launch sites. In Houston, local officials aren't waiting for the seminars and workshops; discussions have begun about closing a little-used portion of road near the main runways of George Bush Intercontinental Airport that might otherwise be a convenient launch site. In December, like many airports all over the country, Bush closed a public observation area in the wake of the Kenya attack.

...Pilots Get Hijack Panic Button

Just in case terrorists manage to get aboard an airliner, new equipment will ensure that the crew can hit a button to at least let ground controllers know about it. None of the pilots aboard the four aircraft hijacked on Sept. 11, 2001, squawked the 7500 transponder code to announce the hijacking. On three of the jets, the transponders were shut off. The FAA is now requiring that hijack alert buttons, which can be instantly activated and, once switched on, can't easily be switched off, be installed on airliners. The projected fleet-wide cost ranges toward $80 million. The panic buttons will be mandatory on all passenger and cargo planes with 10 seats or more. And, of course, there's the wrangle about who will pay to outfit the domestic fleet of 7,000 affected aircraft. The FAA says the cost of another terrorist attack "cannot be reasonably measured in dollars" but then, of course, nobody at the FAA will likely be personally out of pocket for the expense ... unless through another security surcharge when purchasing an airline ticket.