Airlines under fire over terror alerts

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Carriers could pick up bill if fighters scrambled needlessly

Airlines could be forced to pick up the bill if their crews cause unnecessary security alerts that result in military aircraft being scrambled because they have failed to maintain voice communications with air traffic controllers, according to measures being drawn up by some European countries.

The German ministry of defence says charging airlines for the cost of military intercepts is "under the strongest consideration...as long as it is their fault". It declines to reveal how often the German air force carries out intercepts, but sources put the figure at one a week. Eurocontrol says there are interceptions in Europe "virtually every other day".

In a precedent-setting move, the Dutch public prosecutor is investigating whether there are legal grounds to pursue Spanish operator Air Europa through the courts to recover costs relating to a major security alert earlier this year.

During the incident, an Air Europa Boeing 737-800 failed to contact Maastricht ATC after entering Dutch airspace on 1 May (Flight International, 17-23 August). The aircraft crossed most of Europe without contacting ATC. Two Dutch air force fighters were scrambled to intercept, later to be relieved by a pair of French fighters. Radio communications were restored 1h 45min after the alert.

The Dutch public prosecutor's office says it has interviewed the cockpit crew in Spain and will decide whether to launch legal action soon. Air Europa did not respond to enquiries.

In an effort to tackle the problem, Eurocontrol and NATO are preparing to flight test a system designed to dramatically reduce the number of interceptions.

Under the European Regional Renegade Information Dissemination System (ERRIDS) programme, airline operations centres will be integrated into a secure network also linking Eurocontrol, NATO, national air defence centres and governments, civil and military ATC centres and airports. In the event of loss of communications with an aircraft, ERRIDS would automatically notify the airline's operations centre, which in turn would attempt to contact the crew using its company radio channel or by transmitting an ACARS message.

Aircraft would have a high-capacity, secure link into ERRIDS so that in the event of a genuine hijack attempt, there can be an exchange of encrypted voice and data, potentially including video of the cabin.

ANDREW DOYLE / BRUSSELS