Pilots: System to Identify Hijacked Planes Creates New Safety Problems

Poor training of control personnel leads to long identification process, disruption of activity in cockpit.

A new system meant to detect whether a plane has been hijacked has created safety problems of its own, the National Pilots Association said recently in a letter to Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz.

The Code Positive system is still being tested, and the tests are due to be expanded on Monday to encompass some 2,000 Israeli and foreign pilots. These expanded tests will run for several months, after which the Transportation Ministry will decide whether to make the system mandatory for all planes flying to Israel.

However, the Pilots Association said in its letter, the tests to date have already revealed numerous problems with the system, ranging from technical problems to a lack of expertise on the part of those manning it. In some cases, "use of the system has itself created a safety problem," it stated.

This system, developed by Elbit, is based on a smart card that broadcasts the pilot's personal identification code to a control center in Israel shortly before the plane lands. If the plane were hijacked, the hijackers would theoretically be unable to broadcast this signal, thus alerting the authorities to the takeover.

But because of the poorly trained control personnel, which the letter cited as one of the system's most serious problems, "the identification process takes too long, which disrupts the natural routine of activity in the pilot's cabin." Moreover, the fact that the pilot must "remain on the identification frequency for so long prevents [him] from listening to the international distress frequency."

Another problem is that the smart cards are "widely distributed, with little ability to keep track of each card after it is distributed. This creates ample opportunity for carrying out hostile acts with the help of these cards. Even more serious, there is no control for the possibility that the card, along with its positive code, might be delivered intentionally into enemy hands."

Finally, the letter stated, the cards themselves create safety problems by "disrupting the natural activity carried out in the pilots' cabin, especially during preparations for landing. In emergency situations, or any other situation involving a heavier-than-usual workload due to operational constraints (such as a shortage of fuel, weather problems, passenger problems or other problems), this additional burden impairs the crew's functioning and is liable to divert its attention to activities that are not at the top of the priority list. A crew caught in one of the above situations is liable not to have time to carry out the identification procedure - which could lead to it being identified as a threat, and consequently to extreme scenarios that could endanger the plane."

Some sort of identification system is clearly necessary, and "additional improvements [in this area] are required," the letter concluded. "But Code Positive is not one of them."

In response, the ministry noted that the program is still being tested, and no final decision on its use has yet been made.