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Friday, 28 September, 2001, 16:46 GMT 17:46 UK
Industry wary of 'shoot down' tactics
F-16 fighters
Strike aircraft would provide a last line of defence
By BBC News Online's Tom Housden

In the wake of the devastating attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, much attention has focused on how airline security can be improved.

A range of measures have been approved by President Bush, including so-called air marshals and sealing aircraft cockpits.

We haven't totally dismissed the proposals, but this seems to be a knee-jerk reaction

But the most drastic move is a directive authorising the US military to shoot down any commercial airliner perceived as a threat to a population centre.

Even as the ruling was made, two F-16 fighter jets were scrambled to escort an Air Canada flight back to Los Angeles after a passenger created a distrubance on board.

Two US Air Force generals have been given powers to order pilots to shoot down commercial aircraft if there is not enough time to seek presidential clearance.

Seeking to reassure travellers of their safety, US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has promised: "There are a lot of safeguards in place."

New rules

Mr Rumsfeld said he had drawn up the new rules of engagement for military pilots with General Henry Shelton, the retiring Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld
Mr Rumsfeld has assured the public that there will be safeguards

"The last thing in the world that one of them wants to do is engage a commercial aircraft," said General Shelton.

"Don't get the impression that anyone who's flying around out there has a loose trigger finger."

But despite his words of reassurance, there are concerns that amid worldwide panic about the possibility of more suicide hijackings, other countries will adopt similar measures.

And if such a policy becomes widespread, there are worries that safeguards may be placed under great strain, and the chances of an accident will rise.

In the past, military aircraft have been involved in a number of controversial attacks of commercial aircraft.

Cockpit security will also be improved

In July 1988 the US destroyer USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian airliner flying over the Straits of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf after mistaking it for a military plane - 290 people died.

In September 1983, a Korean Airlines plane was shot down by Soviet pilots off Sakhalin Island with the loss of 293 lives after the plane accidentally flew into Russian air space.

Caution urged

While strong measures have received backing in the US, the British Air Line Pilots Association (Balpa) is urging caution, and says that time is needed to assess security needs.

The US air industry is reeling amid cuts and job losses

A Balpa spokesperson told BBC News Online: "We haven't totally dismissed the proposals - we'll consider them, and we're looking at all the options, but this seems to be an extreme, knee-jerk reaction."

"The US pilots' association has suggested arming pilots with guns, but Balpa is focusing on stopping suspected hijackers getting on planes in the first place," she added.

David Learmount, a former RAF pilot and current correspondent with Flight International magazine, told BBC News Online he believes the long-term solution to hijacking fears means "getting smarter about security on the ground".

He said proposals to shoot down rogue airliners would only raise fears among passengers and within the industry, and cast doubt on whether the revised rules of engagement would even be effective.

'Not effective'

"This is not a normal circumstance within the US. To be effective, you would have to have lots of aircraft stationed all over the place on immediate readiness ... at the moment the US can't do this," he said.

Boeing 747 airliner
Experts say better ground security is essential

"It would cost a lot, and you would also need more pilots," he added.

"It wouldn't be impossible to make a mistake, but a mistake is unlikely," he said.

"There are questions raised, however, as to the point an airliner would need to get to to be considered 'rogue'."

He echoed Balpa's call for preventative measures, and said more backing should be given to measures suggested by the International Air Transport Association.

It has proposed palm and retina scanning for passengers as a means of keeping better checks on who is getting on flights.

Scans could then be registered or checked against existing database records, possibly speeding up check-in times, and eliminating people from flights with a history of disruptive behaviour.

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