El Al, Israel’s national airline, is to become the first company to install anti-missile systems on passenger aircraft, according to reports this week.

The anti-missile system, called Flight Guard, has been developed by Israeli defense firms and will cost about £600,000 per plane. According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, it will be implemented this month.

When a plane comes under rocket attack the system automatically responds by firing flares that will divert a heat-seeking missile away from its target.
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The flares, which are triggered automatically by radar, are invisible to the naked eye so they don’t cause panic among passengers.

Flight Guard is expected to be installed on six El Al jets, and if initial tests are successful they will eventually be introduced on the rest of the airline’s 30-strong fleet.

Rocket attacks, particularly from shoulder-to-air missiles (SAM), are one of the airline industry’s biggest security concerns. The missiles can be fired at a plane with great accuracy from anywhere within a mile of take-off or landing.

Last year, an Israeli charter jet carrying more than 250 passengers was attacked after taking off from Mombasa in Kenya. Both Mombasa and Nairobi airports were subsequently closed as security was tightened.

These two SAM attacks narrowly missed their targets and were cited by Israel’s transport minister, Meir Sheetrit, as the main reason to speed up the development of a protection system.

El Al has always invested heavily in in-flight security, and is one of the only airlines that regularly deploys sky marshals on flights.

American and European aviation authorities have yet to approve the use of anti-missile technology for civil aviation, but negotiations are under way.

British Airways has not ruled out introducing such a system. “We have been talking to airline manufacturers for a long time about how best to adapt military technology to the civilian world,” said a BA spokeswoman. “We are always examining ways to increase security and safety for our passengers, but remain to be convinced that this would be a beneficial step. We still see security on the ground as our primary focus.”

One of the biggest problems with Flight Guard is its cost. With the price estimated at £600,000 per plane, and with British Airways’ fleet numbering more than 300 aircraft, the cost would place a big strain on an airline that is already struggling to remain profitable.

Jim O’Halloran, editor of Jane’s Land-Based Air Defence, said the development of infra-red or laser-jamming systems could be an alternative option.

The United States government recently signed a contract with United Airlines and the British defence firm BAE Systems to try out infra-red and laser-jamming systems on passenger planes.

O’Halloran said the US and Europe have so far rejected using a flare-based system because of the possible impact if used close to built-up airports.

“Understandably the flare system was rejected because of the potential impact this could have over built-up areas such as Heathrow,” he said.

“But it seems inevitable that Europe will follow the US lead and consider adopting infra-red or laser-jamming systems, at least on the high-risk international routes.”

He added that cost would fall significantly if the airlines were committed only to installing anti-missile systems on planes that have not yet been built rather than adapting them to aircraft that are already in service.

Anti-missile systems are already widely used on private jets, including the US President’s Air Force One.

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