How to Protect Airlines From Missile Attacks?

Experts are seeking ways to protect passenger planes from surface-to-air missile attacks — similar to last week's attempt to bring down an Israeli Boeing 757 over Kenya — but so far there are no easy or inexpensive solutions.

The FBI estimates that from 1978 through 1998, 29 civilian planes were downed by surface-to-air missiles. Some 550 people died.

Amid renewed airline security concerns in the wake of last Thursday's failed attack over Kenya, lawmakers in Washington today expressed concern about the possibility of surface-to-air missiles landing in terrorist hands, and they issued warnings over threats to commercial planes flying in the United States.

Some experts say commercial planes could be equipped with anti-missile flares to draw away missiles such as those currently mounted on military aircraft.

In the military, jets are outfitted with metallic confetti to confuse radar-guided missiles and flares to throw off heat-seeking missiles — the kinds that are most likely to fall into the hands of terrorists.

And researchers are moving up to the latest technology against heat-seeking missiles, which involve using a laser to redirect the missiles.

Who Will Pick Up the Tab?

An Israeli company named Rafael says its version of this technology could be ready for commercial use within months.

"Is this system the solution? The answer is absolutely yes. Absolutely yes," said Patrick Bar-Avi, Rafael's director of sensing and active protection systems.

Although aviation security experts say such flares tend to be about 90 percent effective, the estimated cost of mounting such a flare system is about $1 million to $2 million per plane.

"The problem is that the industry, quite understandably, balks at an enormous cost, and there is no one to pick up the tab right now," said Daniel Benjamin, a former director of counterterrorism at the National Security Council and author of the book The Age of Sacred Terror.

In addition, it could take years to implement.

"This is not an issue of deciding today that we're going to install this on all aircraft and in 12 months we're going to have it on all aircraft," said Robert Wall, the senior Pentagon editor of Aviation Week.

El Al, Israel's commercial airline, reportedly has installed anti-missile devices on some of its aircraft.

How to Secure Airports?

One of the reasons commercial planes are considered so vulnerable to missiles is their predictable takeoff and landing patterns.

Reworking flight paths could impact the safety of the air traffic system, although some changes may be possible.

"Aggressive climb procedures are something that we can do today," said John Hansman, professor in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "And that would get you away from the threats on the ground. Distance is protection."

The key protection is stopping someone from firing a missile in the first place, but it would be virtually impossible to police all of the areas around airports.

Speaking on ABCNEWS' Good Morning America today, Benjamin also advocated securing the perimeter of airports to prevent intruders armed with missiles from entering a zone from which a shoulder-fired missile could target a commercial airliner.

But while Benjamin noted that securing the perimeter around U.S. airports would be easy to accomplish, it would be more difficult to ensure that airports abroad complied with the regulations.

The perimeter around London's Heathrow Airport has already been secured, following threats from the Irish Republican Army during the 1980s.

For now, the government and aviation industry take the possibility of a missile threat seriously. But in the near future, there may be little they can do about it.

ABCNEWS' Lisa Stark and Dennis Powell contributed to this report.

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