Passenger planes to get missile defence system

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Commercial airlines are in talks with a defence contractor about a new system designed to prevent civilian aircraft being shot down by terrorists.

The Jeteye system, built by BAE Systems, is in its final stage of development following successful trials in the US, and a crucial Congress decision on whether to make them mandatory on all flights will follow. "BA has been looking at anti-missile technology for the last few years, as well as different systems currently under development," said a spokesman for the airline.

Based on an earlier application to protect military aircraft, Jeteye is designed to protect civilian planes from being shot out of the sky by someone on the ground using a shoulder-mounted missile.

To date, there have been 38 attacks against civilian aircraft using these missiles, the majority in war zones.

In August, the outgoing president of the International Civil Aviation Organisation, Assad Kotaite, said shoulder-mounted rockets were one of the main security threats facing aviation.

Jeteye protects aircraft using sensors and lasers. Once detected, Jeteye fires an infra-red laser directly into the optics of the missile, effectively blinding it and throwing it off course. The missile should then hit the ground and explode, depending on what type of fuse system it has.

But airlines are tight-lipped about whether or not they intend to be first in the queue for orders of Jeteye for commercial use. The price is around £500,000 per plane.

The US Department of Homeland Security has championed Jeteye and will make a report on it to Congress at the end of 2008.

It will then be for Congress to make a decision on whether to recommend Jeteye's use on all commercial aircraft or to make it mandatory for them to do so. This could have an impact on international airlines using US airspace.