State Threatens to Ground Airlines That Don't Use Anti-hijack System

Foreign airlines that refuse to use the Code Positive smart-card system for identifying commercial aircraft flying to Israel will not be allowed to land here, the head of security at the Transportation Ministry said yesterday.

Daniel Shenar met in Jerusalem with representatives of the International Federation of Airline Pilots' Association and the International Air Transport Association to discuss their objections to using the system. At the end of the meeting he informed them that they had to use it anyway.

Code Positive was developed by Elbit Systems to warn of hijacking before the plane lands at Ben-Gurion International Airport. Each pilot gets an electronic smart card with an individual code, that identifies him to a special control center, at Beit Dagan, outside Tel Aviv, before landing.

The combination of smart card and individual codes is supposed to ensure that hijackers have not commandeered the plane. Even if they gain possession of the card they will have no way to determine whether the codes provided to them by the pilot have given them away.

The representatives from the international organizations told Shenar they would recommend to their members to refuse to cooperate with Israel on implementing the system. The Israel Air Line Pilots Association also objects to the system.

A former senior executive with a foreign airline that once had one of its aircraft diverted to Cyprus because of a suspicious suitcase on board, told TheMarker: "Threats from the Transportation Ministry are the not the way to solve and deal with disagreements with foreign airlines and pilots. If European airlines are not allowed to land in Israel, Israeli airlines will also not be allowed to land in overseas airports.

Continental Airlines, Air Canada, Delta Airlines, US Airways and Ethiopian Airlines began using Code Positive in March, after the problems discovered in a 2009 test implementation were fixed. About 500 commercial flights have landed in Israel using the system, with no problems.

Fear of being shot down by mistake

The reluctance of pilots and airlines to implement Code Positive stems from a concern that it would actually increase the danger to pilots and passengers - they fear that Israel could intercept an aircraft by accident and even shoot it down before landing. The airlines call the system "unsafe."

Shenar said that without the implementation of the Code Positive system in an all-encompassing fashion for all flights, we will find it very difficult to identify a hijacked plane on its way to Israel with the intention of crashing it into a target for the purpose of a major terror attack.

The head of the Israeli pilots association, Captain Boaz Hativa of El Al, sent a confidential report to his colleagues in March. He said the International Federation of Airline Pilots' Associations had discussed the system and felt it had little, if any, security value, and created other problems related to both security and flight safety. "In addition, it raises a serious possibility that in an extreme case, use of the system could bring about the shooting down of an innocent plane and its passengers," wrote Hativa.

Hativa told TheMarker yesterday that he regrets the ministry's decision to continue with the project, as other solutions exist to the problem of needlessly scrambling Isrel Air Force fighters. "The new system does not solve the problem of identifying the pilots, so it is not clear on what considerations the Transportation Ministry based its decision."

A trial of the Code Positive system initiated in early 2009 was halted after only a few months, after an incident in April in which a Delta Airlines pilot accidentally activated the warning system while entering Israeli airspace, prompting an escort to Ben-Gurion Airport by a pair of Israel Air Force jets. A subsequent Transportation Ministry investigation uncovered a problem with the electronic card. Elbit made corrections.

In a letter sent to the ministry after the incident, Israeli pilots complained that "the identification process takes too long, which disrupts the natural routine of activity in the cockpit." Moreover, the fact that the pilot must "remain on the identification frequency for so long prevents [him] from listening to the international distress frequency," they claimed.

Another problem cited in the letter is that the smart cards are "widely distributed, with little ability to keep track of each card after it is issued. This creates ample opportunity for carrying out hostile acts using 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," the pilots wrote.

Finally, the letter stated, the cards themselves create safety problems by "disrupting the natural activity in the cockpit, 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 fuel shortage, bad weather or problems with a passenger ), this additional burden impairs the crew's performance and could distract 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."