Anti-Missile Plan for Commercial Jets Criticized

Three American Airlines commercial jetliners will be equipped with anti-missile systems for coast-to-coast flights this spring. The Department of Homeland Security is spending $29 million to test the systems — which are intended to defend against shoulder-fired missiles that could possibly be used by terrorists.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Michele Norris.

It sounds like something out of a Wesley Snipes movie. A missile is fired at an airplane, but a laser fired at the missile sends it harmlessly off course. The military has been using such anti-missile technology on its planes for years. Now, this spring, the Department of Homeland Security will test similar anti-missile systems on three passenger jets.

Here's NPR's David Schaper.

DAVID SCHAPER: I'm standing in an office in industrial park just east of Chicago's O'Hare Airport. Hundreds of airplanes, either taking off or landing at O'Hare, pass over this area at a very low altitude everyday. The anti-missile systems would protect those aircrafts from the possibility that a terrorist could be lurking behind one of these small factories or warehouses with a shoulder-fired missile launcher.

Mr. BURT KEIRSTEAD (Director, Commercial Airline Protection, BAE Systems): They're so insidious because they're kind of like the Saturday Night Special of terrorists.

SCHAPER: Burt Keirstead is the director of commercial aircraft protection at aerospace defense contractor, BAE Systems.

Mr. KEIRSTEAD: They're portable. They're shoulder fired. They have been highly proliferated. And so there is this specter of a threat to commercial aircraft if in the wrong hands.

SCHAPER: Keirstead says the missile defense system is actually a small robotic device attached to the plane. They call it R2-D2 for its similarities to the droid from the "Star Wars" movies. He says the device first senses the missile fired at the plane, processes what it is, turns toward it, and then fires a laser beam at the missile to divert it.

Mr. KEIRSTEAD: The way the missile operate - they're sensing the heat of the aircraft and that's why if you can shine a laser back at the missile and, you know, effectively dazzle his eyeballs with infrared light, then he can no longer attract the aircraft and falls harmlessly to land.

SCHAPER: Keirstead says the technology has worked effectively on military aircrafts, though there are questions about its range. Congress ordered the Department of Homeland Security to test the system and BEA systems won a $29 million contract to install it on three commercial American Airlines jets this spring.

Homeland Security spokeswoman Amy Kudwa says the devices will be tested on Boeing 767-200s that fly daily between New York's JFK Airport and LAX in Los Angeles.

Ms. AMY KUDWA (Spokeswoman, Department of Homeland Security): Of course, we're not going to be firing anything at these aircrafts. What we're looking at in this particular testing is the cost to operate and maintain these systems in a commercial airline setting.

SCHAPER: The laser systems cost a half a million to a million dollars each. But it's unclear how durable and reliable they'll be when used on commercial flying coast to coast everyday.

Mr. JOHN HOTARD (Spokesman, American Airlines): One of our biggest fears is that the government is going to pass the cost along to the airlines. And the airline industry is in no financial shape to take on this additional cost.

SCHAPER: That's American Airlines spokesman John Hotard who says the nation's largest carrier is philosophically opposed to equipping all its domestic planes with these defensive devices. He says setting up a missile defense system around the perimeter of an airport might be a better use of Homeland Security funds because that's where the greatest threat from shoulder-fired missiles would be.

But Hotard says, American agreed to participate in the test because it may have use on certain international flights. And Congress might eventually mandate the systems on all domestic planes anyway. Some airlines passengers are also less than enthusiastic about anti-missile technology on passenger jets.

Mr. JASON GERACHE(ph) (Passenger): I don't know. This one's a little bit like the argument over "Star Wars" to me.

SCHAPER: Jason Gerache of Chicago is waiting at O'Hare Airport's baggage claim area.

Mr. GERACHE: I guess any security is good security. It doesn't seem like a pressing issue as far as domestic flights. I guess I could understand it in more dangerous threatened areas of the world, you know. That would seem to make more sense to me.

SCHAPER: The tests of the anti-missile devices are expected to begin in late spring with results reported to Congress next year.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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