- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 20, 2006

LONDON — Five years after the September 11 terrorist attacks, a hijack-proof airliner still seems the impossible dream, but the next best thing to it could begin guarding the world’s airways within two to four years.

A consortium of European scientists is working on a $46 million project to thwart terrorists bent on capturing and destroying an aircraft in flight after they have managed to sneak through airport security.

More than 100 aviation specialists from 31 companies are involved in the project, part of a plan known as Security of Aircraft in the Future European Environment (SAFEE), to create a so-called “last barrier to attack” by hijackers.

Scientists at one of the companies, defense giant BAE Systems in Bristol, England, say that at the heart of their work is development of a computer system that could automatically seize control of a threatened airliner and prevent a hijacker from steering it into a mountain or tall building.

Such a system is viewed as the “holy grail” of aircraft security, designed to foil tragedies such as the September 11, 2001, hijacked-airliner attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in the U.S.

Total safety may be impossible, researchers concede.

“You never reach zero level of threat, no risk,” SAFEE program coordinator Daniel Gaultier, of the French technology company Sagem Defense Securite, told journalists recently. “But if you equip planes with onboard electronics, it will make them very, very difficult to hijack.”

Researchers at BAE Systems say components of the new system are being tested and could be in operation by 2008. Others say 2010 is a more realistic date.

Even a limited deployment would represent a major advance in aircraft safety. Improvements since the September 11 attacks have been limited largely to reinforcing cockpit doors and deploying sky marshals.

The continuing threat of another major terror spectacle in the skies was highlighted by last month’s raids in Britain in which authorities arrested two dozen young British Muslims suspected of planning to smuggle liquid explosives aboard about 10 jetliners and detonate them over the Atlantic Ocean.

A key element in the SAFEE project involves a secure cockpit biometrics system of fingerprints, iris and other scans that would make the aircraft controls unusable for anyone other than an approved pilot.

Even if terrorists managed to break into the cockpit, a “hazard-avoidance” computer would take control of the aircraft and guide it to a safe landing at the nearest airport, avoiding tall buildings and other hazards.

Still other enhancements the SAFEE scientists want to develop include the use of TV cameras, microphones and other sensors to keep tabs on any suspicious passenger behavior.

“We want to detect a threat early, before someone storms the cockpit or flight deck,” Catherine Neary, a human factors specialist at BAE Systems, told ABC News.

Also around the corner, the SAFEE researchers hope, are an “electronic nose” to check passengers as they board; cameras at check-in desks to verify passenger biometric data; and an electronic-chip-based system to match passengers with their luggage.

There are skeptics. Britt Marshall, a former law-enforcement officer and Interpol agent, reminded the Internet publication TechNewsWorld that “the Titanic was billed as the ship that was unsinkable.”

“Now we know,” Mr. Marshall said, “that there is no ship in this world that is unsinkable, no plane that is non-hijackable and no marriage that is undivorceable.”

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