Travel News: Danger on the ground

Governments must attempt to eradicate shoulder-launched missiles worldwide before one is used to shoot down a civil aircraft: that is the plea by the man who has been in charge of global aviation for 30 years. Assad Kotaite, who became council president of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in 1976, steps down in 10 days' time. But in a final interview with
Airport Business magazine, he expresses alarm over Man-Portable Air Defence Systems, or "manpads" as such weapons are known.

Following the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001, ICAO prioritised what it considered the main security threats against aviation, including using aircraft as weapons, and suicide attacks in the air and on the ground.

Dr Assad was asked whether the list was still accurate: "Yes it is, but I would like to add one more: manpads, or Man-Portable Air Defence Systems. In short, shoulder-launched rockets or missiles. Governments should prioritise manpads for destruction."

In 2002, Islamic terrorists used rockets to target an Israeli charter aircraft with 271 people on board in Mombasa. On the day that suicide bombers killed 12 people at a beach hotel in the Kenyan resort, two Strela SA-7 shoulder-launched weapons were fired at the Boeing 757 belonging to Arkia Airlines. Both missed the target by a few feet.

Swiss intelligence officials are believed to have foiled a later attempt to attack an El Al aircraft at Geneva airport. Israel's national airline has fitted anti-missile protection systems to some of its passenger aircraft; invisible flares are deployed to confuse rocket guidance systems.

The number of illegally held missiles is unknown, but it is believed that around 400 Stinger rockets supplied by the US to anti-Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s are still unaccounted for. Missiles are thought to be in the hands of terrorist groups ranging from Hizbollah in Lebanon to the FARC in Colombia. But even a direct hit may not prove fatal; an Airbus A300 cargo plane struck by a missile after take-off from Baghdad airport in November 2003 landed safely.

"Large jet airliners are designed to continue flying after sustaining major damage," says Todd Curtis, founder of the leading aviation website AirSafe.com. "While the effects of a small warhead such as that in an SA-7 may cause severe damage, it may not necessarily lead to a loss of aircraft control or to a catastrophic in-flight breakup."

This Month AirSafe.com marks 10 years of analysing aviation safety. Even though there have been three fatal accidents in the past three months - two of them involving Russian aircraft - Curtis says he feels more confident about air safety, because "aviation safety and aviation security issues continue to have a very high public-policy profile and also because the internet has allowed access to far better information about travel choices and travel issues". But he believes significant risks remain in "many of the lesser developed nations of the world".

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