Two Israel Air Force fighter jets were scrambled yesterday to intercept an Ethiopian Airlines plane heading for Israeli airspace due to initial fears that the plane may have been hijacked.
When the pilot gave the correct code, the plane was allowed to enter Israeli airspace and land at Ben-Gurion International Airport.
"We were over the desert and heading for Ben-Gurion Airport when suddenly I saw two armed IAF jets flying alongside us," one passenger told Haaretz. "People were scared, we didn't know what was going on. The plane began circling in the air, with the fighter jets still flying alongside."
"At some point, the captain explained there had been a problem with the Israeli communication network and we needed to wait in the air a little longer," he said. "After the landing, Israeli security personnel asked us if we saw or felt anything suspicious on the plane. The captain stood at the door, shook our hands and apologized for the incident."
Ethiopian Airlines is one of five airlines testing a technology meant to warn of a hijacking before the plane lands in Israel. The other companies are Continental Airlines, Air Canada, Delta Air Lines and US Airways.
Israel intends to require all planes flying into the country to use the system, a plan opposed by local and international airline and pilot groups, including the International Federation of Airline Pilots' Associations, the International Air Transport Association and the Israel Airline Pilots Association.
In yesterday's incident, the pilot, whose plane was over the Red Sea when the IAF jets surrounded it, failed to transmit the correct code at a predetermined distance to a control center in Beit Dagan. The personal identification code is intended to show that the pilot at the controls is the one who has been authorized to fly the plane.
The hijack warning system, called Code Positive and developed by Haifa-based defense electronics company Elbit Systems, includes an electronic smart card for pilots, who are supposed to use the card and its codes to identify themselves before landing.
Israel began testing the system in December 2008, but the test was halted the following April, several days after IAF jets intercepted a Delta flight due to problems with the pilot's smart card. Sources said the problems have since been resolved.
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